ATLANTA, JUNE 23 -- Attorneys for the Alabama Board of Education and a dozen Mobile County parents asked a federal appeals panel today to throw out a controversial lower-court decision banning 44 Alabama public school textbooks, arguing that the fundamentalist parents who challenged the books wanted to tailor curricula to their religious beliefs.

The lawyers cited as support the Supreme Court's decision last week overturning the Louisiana law that required schools to teach creationism with evolution. "It is this equal time for theism . . . that the Supreme Court last Friday rejected," said William Bradford, attorney for parents who intervened on behalf of the Alabama board.

But attorneys for the 600 fundamentalist parents also said the Supreme Court decision supported their argument that the textbooks, by promoting the "religion" of "secular humanism," violated the First Amendment.

The Alabama Board of Education is appealing a March ruling by U.S. District Court Judge W. Brevard Hand that bans social studies and home economics textbooks because they promote the philosophy of secular humanism, which he ruled was a religion.

The arguments were heard by a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, headed by Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr., who as a U.S. district court judge in Montgomery was known for a series of decisions upholding the constitutional rights of blacks in Alabama. A different panel of the 11th Circuit set aside Hand's ruling in late March pending the appeal.

Attorneys said they expected the panel to issue a decision before school starts next fall. Both sides said they expect the ruling to be appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Alabama textbook case, which was argued in a three-week trial in Mobile last fall, has been among the most visible efforts by conservative Christians to change public school curricula. A ruling overturning Hand's decision, following the Supreme Court's creationism ruling last week, would be a serious blow to the religious right.

In today's 45-minute hearing, Johnson asked several questions about the origins of the case, which stemmed from an earlier challenge of an Alabama law permitting a moment of silence in school. When Hand's ruling upholding that law was overturned, he "realigned" the parents who had defended the moment of silence and made them plaintiffs, challenging the role of secular humanism in the textbooks.

"I'm trying to find out who instigated this lawsuit," asked Johnson. "Was it the parties or the district judge?"

Both sides agreed that neither had filed a motion asking Hand to realign the case. But attorneys for the fundamentalist parents said Hand acted properly because the issue of secular humanism remained unresolved.

Thomas F. Parker, who represents the fundamentalist parents, argued that the books violate the Constitution by excluding facts about the role of religion in history.

"The exclusion of theistic faith discriminates against adherents to that faith, just as exclusion of blacks or women discriminates against them," he said.

Judge Thomas A. Clark asked Parker whether the state school board chose the books in order to promote secular humanism. "The fact that the books might incidentally mention {beliefs shared by secular humanists} doesn't create any state responsibility," Clark said.

Parker answered that if the books had the effect of promoting religion -- in this case secular humanism -- they are unconstitutional, regardless of the board's intent. Attorneys for the state board argued that their opponents had failed to prove that the texts had any such effect.