The head of the Justice Department's juvenile justice office was showered with bipartisan criticism yesterday for awarding a $186,710 grant to conservative activist James McClellan while the rest of the unit's grant programs remain frozen.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the subcommittee on juvenile justice of the Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) questioned the need for the grant, which is for McClellan's Center for Judicial Studies to write a course on the Constitution for high school students. The award was approved by Alfred S. Regnery during a spending freeze at his $70 million juvenile-justice office, which the administration wants to abolish.

After local juvenile aid officials testified that the freeze is disrupting their programs, Specter asked Regnery: "What is the justification for awarding these funds when there is a cutoff for [programs covering] drug abuse, sexually abused children, alternatives to jail and so on?"

Regnery testified that he approved the grant to McClellan because it was "in the pipeline" when the freeze was imposed Jan. 7, while most other programs were not ready for approval. Specter questioned the decision because the Legal Services Corp. had just withheld part of a $337,000 grant to another McClellan organization in a dispute over how much work McClellan had done.

Regnery has said that McClellan's conservative views were a factor in his decision. McClellan is to write the course with Jerry Combee, a dean at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.

When Regnery said that Congress had mandated funding for such grants under a law-related education program, Simon said: "I can't believe they had in mind funding a course by a fellow who has chosen as his general editor a fellow from Jerry Falwell's Liberty University."

Simon asked whether Regnery agreed with McClellan's view that key protections of the Bill of Rights do not apply to the states. Regnery said he does not endorse all of McClellan's ideas, but "if you're accusing me of being a conservative, I plead guilty."

"I think you can be conservative and also want to do something about crime in this country, and also want to save human lives," Simon replied. ". . . I want someone at the head of your agency who really believes in the programs."

Regnery defended the administration's proposal to rescind the office's funding in April, saying it was more important to reduce the federal deficit. But criticism by some conservatives at the hearing made it appear unlikely that Congress will approve the rescission.

Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.), for example, said a rescission "would force the immediate shutdown of approximately 90 percent" of juvenile aid programs in Alabama and make it more difficult for the state to remove juveniles from prisons for adults.