Civil liberties and education groups called yesterday for Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige to apologize or resign after he told a Baptist publication that he believes it is important for schools to teach Christian values.

"All things equal, I would prefer to have a child in a school that has a strong appreciation for the values of the Christian community, where a child is taught to have a strong faith," Paige said in an interview published Monday by the Baptist Press, the news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said Paige's remarks showed "an astonishing mix of disrespect for both America's religious diversity and the public schools." In a letter faxed to the Department of Education yesterday, Lynn urged Paige to repudiate the remarks or step down.

Dan Lengan, Paige's press secretary, said that the quotations in the article were accurate and that Paige has no intention of resigning.

"Secretary Paige's deep faith has helped him to overcome adversity, to find clarity and has sustained him throughout his life," Lengan said. "He has dedicated his entire career to promoting diversity and making sure children from all races, ethnic groups and faiths share access to the best possible education."

Lengan declined to clarify whether Paige was suggesting in the interview that public schools should teach Christian values or that parents should send their children to parochial schools. "The quotes are the quotes," he said.

Paige, who serves as a deacon at Brentwood Baptist Church in Houston, said the animosity against God in public school settings is puzzling, according to the Baptist Press article.

"The reason that Christian schools and Christian universities are growing is a result of a strong value system," he said. "In a religious environment the value system is set. That's not the case in a public school where there are so many different kids with different kinds of values."

Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a union representing 1.3 million teachers, said Paige should quickly clarify or recant his comments.

"Secretary Paige is right about one thing: Our public schools are filled with, as he said, many different kinds of kids with different values. But it is insulting for the secretary -- who should be the advocate for the over 50 million children in our public schools -- to say their diversity somehow compromises those schools. Nothing could be further from the truth. That is precisely what makes our public schools great," she said.

Paige told Baptist Press that he begins every day with scripture lessons and prayer. He also said his faith is integral to his work.

"My faith in God is not a separate part of me," Paige said. "I can't do that. I know clearly that where I am and what I do is not so much a product of my work, but a product of God's grace."

To those who disagree with his position that religion has a place in the public schools, Paige replied: "I would offer critics my prayers."