President Bush's veto of a major civil rights bill has drawn sharp and widespread criticism from interfaith religious leaders who supported the bill as crucial to reaffirming the nation's commitment to minority rights and an integrated work place.

Calling the veto everything from a "great frustration" to a "cruel slap in the face," the leaders vowed to redouble their efforts and make the bill a major issue in 1991.

"I guess we were outraged. It was just insulting. It was a badly needed piece of legislation that was projected by the Bush administration as a quota bill. They were very dishonest about it -- it's simply not a quota bill," said Kenyon Burke, associate general secretary of the Division of Church and Society at the National Council of Churches for the past 10 years.

President Bush and various business groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the Civil Rights Act of 1990 would lead to extensive use of racial or minority quotas in hiring and promotion.

The Senate, voting 66 to 34, fell one vote short of overriding the veto on Oct. 24.

Robert K. Lifton, president of the American Jewish Congress, called the veto a "cruel slap in the face of thousands of Afro-Americans, women, Hispanics, Jews and other minorities who are the victims of employment discrimination."

Bishop James Malone, who heads the United States Catholic Conference's Domestic Policy Committee, called the bill "a fair and reasonable effort to protect the dignity and rights of all Americans," in expressing disappointment at its veto.

The Rev. Benjamin Chavis, head of the Commission for Racial Justice for the United Church of Christ and one of the sharpest critics of the president's veto, said it "would lead to a greater degree of racial polarization" for which "President Bush has only himself to blame." The "moral tone" set by the presidential action on this issue, he said, is "Who cares?"

The veto "is a very poisonous move. It sends a very negative signal to the country about our commitment to civil rights and fairness for all people, especially people of color," said Burke, who also sits on the executive committee of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

Advocates of the bill argue that it is needed to salvage 25 years of progress in labor civil rights that was reversed by a series of Supreme Court decisions last year. Those decisions, they say, limit the legal protection available for victims of job discrimination and unfairly transfer the legal burden of proving bias from employers to employees.

Religious groups make up a significant part of the 180 national organizations of the Leadership Conference, said the Rev. James Lintner, director of the Office for Church in Society of United Church of Christ in Washington. Lintner helped coordinate the efforts of the religious members of the conference to support the civil rights bill.

Religious leaders unanimously disputed the president's characterization of the legislation as a quota bill. The president argued that businesses would be forced to resort to quota practices to protect themselves against possible lawsuits charging job discrimination.

Judith Golub, legislative director for the American Jewish Committee, said the bill's supporters "went more than halfway to meet President Bush's concerns," making more than a dozen "changes of substance" in the language of the bill.

Chavis said his church's racial justice commission would immediately begin organizing "grass-roots support in every congressional district in the country for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1991."