The National Endowment for the Arts' mandatory anti-obscenity pledge has been ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge.

The pledge, which barred last year's NEA grant recipients from making obscene works, violated the artists' free-speech rights, U.S. District Judge John Davies ruled Wednesday.The decision resulted from a lawsuit filed by the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company and the Newport Harbor Art Museum. The obscenity-pledge clause was part of the NEA's 1989 grant legislation but was repealed in 1990.

Similar litigation against the NEA is pending in federal court in New York, where the New School for Social Research filed suit.

The judge also ruled that the NEA requirement "is unconstitutionally vague because it leaves the determination of obscenity in the hands of the NEA."

"This is the type of obstacle in the path of the exercise of fundamental speech rights that the Constitution will not tolerate," the judge ruled.

Virginia Falck, an NEA spokeswoman in Washington, said the agency wasn't enforcing the obscenity ban because it was attached to an appropriation that expired Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.

"If the bill expires, we certainly wouldn't be implementing it now, would we?" Falck said.

When it approved a $174 million budget for the arts endowment this fiscal year, Congress repealed the obscenity ban and substituted a requirement that the NEA take "general standards of decency" into account when awarding grants.

Davies' ruling would release NEA grant money only to Lewitzky and the museum, said Stephen F. Rohde, a constitutional law expert who organized a coalition that filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Lewitzky.

"For me, this is a very personal day of rejoicing," said Lewitzky.

Her dance group was awarded a $72,000 NEA grant and received $15,000. When the group failed to sign the obscenity pledge, it was told the rest of the money would be withheld.