Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.) said yesterday he opposes affirmative action hiring plans because he thinks "it is worse to discriminate against majorities" than to discriminate against racial minorities.

Responding to a question during a campaign debate with Democratic rival James P. Moran Jr., Parris drew a distinction between what he called "reverse discrimination" against whites, which he said results when laws impose racial hiring quotas, and the historic discrimination against blacks and other minorities.

Parris's remarks on affirmative action were part of a wide-ranging debate that included pointed exchanges on abortion, the environment and American policy in the Persian Gulf. Parris also alleged that Moran is trying to "cover up" remarks he made in August questioning U.S. military involvement in the Middle East.

Moran, who is mayor of Alexandria, is vying with Parris to represent Northern Virginia's 8th Congressional District in the region's most vigorously contested House race. The debate was sponsored by the Northern Virginia Press Association at an Alexandria hotel.

Parris began his remarks on affirmative action by saying, "I believe in a classless, raceless, sexless society," but said that when considering civil rights legislation, "The thing we have to avoid above all else is reverse discrimination.

"It is bad to discriminate against minorities," Parris said. "It is worse to discriminate against majorities."

Moran said he supports affirmative action hiring programs, saying "the government has a responsibility to provide equal access" to jobs for all people. But he said, "I don't believe in a system of strict quotas."

After the debate, Parris stood by his comment, saying "when you apply that principle {of discrimination} against majorities in a democracy" it is more harmful than discrimination against minorities. A spokesman for Parris, Mark Strand, said later that Parris's "principal stand is that discrimination is wrong."

Moran previously has accused Parris of being racist, basing that allegation on Parris's history of criticizing the D.C. government. He did not repeat that allegation yesterday, but said, "If I were a member of a minority group, I would not look to Mr. Parris to protect my interests . . . . If you take {Parris's} position, we would not have enacted the Emancipation Proclamation."

Parris repeatedly has denied that prejudice motivates his criticism of the District or other legislative stands.

Parris charged that Moran is trying to back away from remarks that raised questions about America's military confrontation with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Moran, who said on Aug. 22 that "the United States acts precipitously and unilaterally too often," said this week that he has become "increasingly supportive" of U.S. policy.

The two also clashed over Parris's record on environmental legislation. Moran cited ratings prepared by several environmental groups that give Parris low scores, but Parris responded by reading a resolution passed by the Alexandria City Council that called Parris "a friend of the environment." The resolution was signed by Moran.

Moran said after the debate that he did not take the resolution seriously when he signed it. "I can show you many resolutions I signed with a grimace in order to be nice," he said.