The Department of Health and Human Services has distributed suggested church sermons written by a government official to child welfare officials around the country, urging that they be adapted for use by local religious leaders to promote adoptions.

"How blessed we are to have been chosen before the world was made to become adopted children through Jesus Christ," said one of the sermons, or homilies, which officials say was sent to some 500 child welfare agencies last week.

"Let us open our minds and hearts to our Christian and community responsibility and restore these children to their rightful place within the family."

The sermons, reported yesterday by D'Vera Cohn of United Press International, put the department on the defensive and stirred protests by civil liberties groups and some religious leaders, who denounced the action as a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.

"I don't really see it as a church-state issue. It's a humanitarian issue," said Enid Borden, a spokesman for the Office of Human Development Services (HDS), the agency of HHS that sent out the sermons. "I hate to see this [controversy] detract from the good work that's being done."

The agency promotes the adoption of handicapped children, older children, racial minorities and others with "special needs."

"We have about 50,000 of these kids waiting to be placed right now," Borden said.

The churches long have been valuable in placing children for adoption, she said. "The bottom line really is getting these kids adopted."

She cited a program in Illinois called "One Church, One Child," run by a black Catholic priest, which urges that one family in every church should adopt a child. "We fund this program," she said.

She said she did not know at what level the dispatch of the sermons was approved, but added, "I think it was probably a casual thing." The agency operates nationally on an informal basis, she said, a "networking kind of thing."

Barry Lynn of the American Civil Liberties Union countered, according to UPI, that "the government cannot be in the sermon-writing businesss, any more than it can be in the prayer-writing business for any or all religious faiths."

"Nothing could be more inappropriate," said Phil Baum, an official of the American Jewish Congress.

"The ministers are perfectly capable of preparing their own sermons without help from Uncle Sam," said Joseph Conn, spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Gary Jarmin, an official of the fundamentalist Christian Voice organization, compared the HDS action with the prayers written by chaplains in Congress and state legislatures. "As long as they're not forcing these ideas on people against their will or discriminating against one religion, I see no harm."

Bill Acosta, head of the Dallas regional HDS office and a devout Catholic, wrote the two sermons and sent them to some Catholic officials in his area last Thanksgiving, during National Adoption Week, Borden said. The editor of the HDS newsletter liked it and decided to send them out nationwide.

HHS spokesman Campbell Gardett said of the action: "It's hard to believe . . . . This whole thing has kind of caught us by surprise."

He said HHS Secretary Margaret M. Heckler could not be reached for comment.