A federal appeals court panel in Atlanta yesterday reversed a ruling by a federal judge in Alabama that banned 44 textbooks from public schools in the state because they promoted the "religion" of secular humanism.

The three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that U.S. District Court Judge W. Brevard Hand had erred in his controversial March order that declared the textbooks in violation of the First Amendment ban on government establishment of religion. The purpose of the history and social studies textbooks was clearly secular, the panel said, ruling in favor of the Alabama Board of Education and against more than 600 fundamentalist Christian parents who had challenged the books.

The appeals court order, which instructs Hand to disolve his order banning the books and to dismiss the lawsuit, clears the way for Alabama schools to use the textbooks when they open in coming weeks.

It was the third consecutive courtroom defeat this summer for fundamentalist Christians who have fought to have their point of view heard in public schools. A federal appeals court panel Monday overturned a judge's decision ordering Hawkins County, Tenn., schools to excuse fundamentalist children from reading class because their parents found the textbooks offensive to their religious beliefs.

In June, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a Louisiana law requiring that public schools give equal time to the teaching of evolution and creation science.

In its decision yesterday, the appeals panel said the books did not violate the First Amendment, as Hand had concluded, and that there was no evidence that "omission of certain facts regarding religion from these textbooks of itself constituted an advancement of secular humanism or an active hostility towards theistic religion . . . ."

Hand had said the books promoted secular humanism -- defined in the dictionary as a human-centered movement based on the belief that people can live ethically without the supernatural -- in part because they excluded facts about Christianity and other traditional religions. Shortly after his ruling, the appeals court suspended the ban while the appeal was decided.

The appeals panel did not deal with the question of whether secular humanism is a religion, saying such a ruling was unnecessary because the parents had failed to prove that the schools were unconstitutionally promoting a religion.

"We're very pleased by this decision," said Alabama school superintendent Wayne Teague. "We have felt all along the state board had acted properly in adopting the textbooks questioned by the lawsuit."

Judy Whorton, who has acted as a spokeswoman for the fundamentalist parents, said they would appeal the decision, taking it to the Supreme Court if necessary. The parents could first ask that the case be reheard by the full appeals court.

"We feel like it's a great blow to academic freedom," she said of the ruling. "There is only one view being promoted. When you're doing that, you're not educating, you're inculcating them. That's not constitutional."

The parents had charged that 39 history and social studies books and five home economics books promoted secular humanism, both by excluding facts about religion and by failing to present a Biblically based or divine framework for decision-making.

"The texts reviewed are not merely bad history," Hand wrote in his order banning the books, "but lack so many facts as to equal ideological promotion. Omissions, if sufficient, do affect a person's ability "We feel like it's a great blow to academic freedom."

-- Judy Whorton, spokeswoman for fundamentalist parents

to develop religious beliefs and exercise that religious freedom guaranteed by the Constitution."

But in yesterday's ruling, written by Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr., the appeals panel said Hand had construed the constitutional mandate of government neutrality on religion "into an affirmative obligation to speak about religion."

Hand's ruling, which declared that the textbooks incorporated a "systematic promotion" of secular humanism, was praised at the time by conservative Christians, who declared it a significant victory because it confirmed their long-held belief that secular humanism is a religion.

Attorneys for the fundamentalist parents were not available for comment yesterday.