In a landmark decision on the rights of homosexuals, a divided federal appeals court panel in California ruled yesterday that Army regulations barring homosexuals from military service violate the constitutional guarantee of equal protection.

The panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 2-to-1 decision, found that homosexuals are a "suspect class" entitled to the same special constitutional protections as racial minorities and said the Army's justifications for excluding homosexuals "illegitimately cater to private biases."

The decision appears to be the first in which a federal appeals court has ruled that discrimination against homosexuals violates the equal protection clause. It could have broad impact, not only in invalidating similar regulations adopted by other branches of the military but also by protecting homosexuals from governmental discrimination in employment, housing and other matters.

The case involves Sgt. Perry Watkins, a 14-year Army veteran who acknowledged on his enlistment questionnaire in 1967 that he had homosexual tendencies, performed in revues as a female impersonator with the permission of his commanding officer, and admitted in a 1979 security clearance interview that he was homosexual. Watkins' superiors consistently gave him outstanding ratings and said he had no problems dealing with other personnel.

Watkins was ordered discharged and denied reenlistment in 1982 on the basis of a regulation passed the year before requiring the discharge of all admitted homosexuals.

In a 60-page opinion by Judge William A. Norris, the court ordered that the Army be required to consider Watkins' application for reenlistment "without regard to his sexual orientation." Norris was joined by Judge William C. Canby Jr.

"Laws that limit the acceptable focus of one's sexual desires to members of the opposite sex, like laws that limit one's choice of spouse {or sexual partner} to members of the same race, cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny absent a compelling governmental justification," Norris said.

Judge Stephen Reinhardt dissented. Reinhardt said that although he shared the majority's belief "that homosexuals have been unfairly treated both historically and in the United States today," a 1986 Supreme Court ruling upholding, 5 to 4, Georgia's sodomy law, which Reinhardt said "egregiously misinterpreted the Constitution," required that the Army regulation be upheld.

All three judges were appointed by President Jimmy Carter.

James Lobsenz, Watkins' lawyer, hailed the decision as a "tremendously broad and courageous ruling." Army spokesman Greg Rixon said he could not yet comment on the ruling but noted that other courts have upheld military regulations that bar homosexuals on the grounds that "homosexuality is incompatible with military service."

The majority opinion emphasized that the Army regulations not only prohibit homosexual conduct, but also generally bar those who admit homosexual orientation -- whether or not they engage in homosexual acts -- from serving.

Norris said the case of Watkins, who was never proved to have actually engaged in homosexual acts, was therefore not covered by the Supreme Court's sodomy decision because "nothing in {the decision} suggests that the state may penalize gays for their sexual orientation."

Although "our review of military regulations must be more deferential than comparable review of laws governing civilians," Norris said the Army regulations must be overturned "because they illegitimately cater to private biases."

Norris compared the Army's justifications that the regulations are needed to avoid tensions between homosexuals and soldiers who "despise" homosexuals to arguments previously used to justify racial segregation in the military.

"These concerns strike a familiar chord . . . ," he said. "Today, it is unthinkable that the judiciary would defer to the Army's prior 'professional' judgment that black and white soldiers had to be segregated to avoid interracial tensions. Indeed, the Supreme Court has decisively rejected the notion that private prejudice against minorities can ever justify official discrimination, even when those private prejudices cause real and legitimate problems."

In addition, he said, while the Army apparently "believes that its ban against homosexuals simply codifies society's existing moral consensus that homosexuality is evil . . . equal protection doctrine does not permit notions of majoritarian morality to serve as compelling justification for laws that discriminate against suspect classes."

Reinhardt's dissent said Watkins was "regrettably, one of those times" he was "compelled" by a Supreme Court ruling "to reach a result I believe to be contrary to the proper interpretation of constitutional principles."

He agreed with the majority that "Sgt. Waktins has every reason to feel aggrieved" but said that under the Supreme Court decisions, "the Army is free to terminate {his} career solely because he is a homosexual."

Gay rights advocates applauded the ruling. "This case . . . signals what I believe is the beginning of courts' being willing to strike down policies against gay people which have been based for years on nothing more than a tradition of prejudice," said Nan Hunter, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Gay Rights Project.

"The decision is very important both symbolically and in fact," said Urvashi Vaid of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "Symbolically, it's important because gay people have been struggling against the armed services for years to be allowed to serve as openly gay . . . . The language of the decision . . . makes very clear that equal protection under the law should not be breached just because a person is gay or lesbian."

If the decision reaches the Supreme Court, its fate is unclear. The high court generally has been receptive to claims that the military must be given broad authority to maintain discipline in the ranks. In 1986, the court ruled 5 to 4 that the Air Force could bar an Orthodox Jewish officer from wearing a yarmulke because the military's "perceived need for uniformity" outweighed the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of religious expression.