A federal appeals court yesterday upheld a lower court's decision to dismiss a civil rights lawsuit filed by a Jewish congregation against eight men who were charged with defacing a synagogue in 1982.

In the 2-to-1 ruling, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond found that federal civil rights laws protecting racial minorities against discrimination cannot be applied to Jews because they do not constitute a race, but a religion.

Shirley Altman, president of the 500-member Shaare Tefila Congregation of Silver Spring, said she was dismayed by the decision. "I feel we really should have protection for all groups who are perceived as being different," she said.

Altman said she and other congregation members will meet with their lawyers within the next few days to decide if they can appeal the ruling.

On the night of Nov. 2, 1982, congregation members discovered that the outside of the synagogue had been spray-painted with anti-Semitic slogans, swastikas, Ku Klux Klan symbols and a skull and crossbones. Eight men were charged in criminal court with destruction of property, and one was convicted.

Two years after the incident, the congregation filed the civil rights suit in federal district court. U.S. District Judge Norman P. Ramsey of Baltimore ruled that the lawsuit did not fall within the scope of the civil rights laws.

In the decision announced yesterday, Judges Kenneth K. Hall and Francis D. Murnaghan Jr. agreed with Ramsey.

"Although we sympathize with appellant's position, we conclude that it cannot support a claim of racial discrimination solely on the basis of defendant's perception of Jews as being members of a racially distinct group," wrote Hall. "To do otherwise would permit charges of racial discrimination to arise out of nothing more than the subjective, irrational perceptions of defendants."