In response to Charles Krauthammer's Dec. 3 op-ed column, "Clinton's Portable Pulpit": President Clinton recognizes the importance of the Parthenon to the cultural heritage of the United States and to the international community as a symbol of democracy.

Opponents raise the false alarm that returning the Parthenon marbles to Athens would set the precedent for all the museums in the world to be emptied in rapid succession. But the issue of the Parthenon marbles is unique.

The marbles--which were removed by Lord Elgin and taken to London in 1801-1816--are not merely statuary (movable decorative art) but integral, interdependent parts of the temple, which was built nearly 2,500 years ago by the original Periclean democracy. The British Museum acquired the marbles by an act of Parliament in 1816, but while Lord Elgin incurred enormous expense to remove them, the marbles were not legally purchased.

The United Nations and the European Parliament have issued declarations urging the return of the marbles. Two recent polls demonstrated that the British public favors reunification of the marbles. Parliament is set to conduct hearings on the matter next year.

When Congress reconvenes, we will have the opportunity to study the issue when I introduce my legislation, the Parthenon Marbles Reunification Act. When the world observes the return of the Olympics to Greece in 2004, so should the world be able to witness the marbles restored to the Parthenon.

--Donald M. Payne

The writer is a Democratic representative from New Jersey.