A panel of ethicists, environmentalists and theologians from major Protestant and Jewish groups this week urged a moratorium on the patenting of genetically altered animals, calling it "a matter of deep philosophical and spiritual concern.

"The ethical, environmental, socioeconomic and theological ramifications of genetic engineering and patenting of life are profound," the group said in a statement."They point to the probability that the integrity and future of creation will be placed in even greater jeopardy if our power over the genes of life is not exercised prudently and with reverence to help restore the covenant: To heal the Earth and ourselves."

The statement grew out of a three-day consultation in suburban Virginia, sponsored by the New Creation Institute, Missoula, Mont., the National Council of Churches, the Humane Society, the Presbyterian Church and other groups. It was prompted by the patent office's decision earlier this month to grant a patent for genetically altered mice.

"This decision is a matter of a deep philosophical and spiritual concern," the statement said. "It portends fundamental change in the public's perception of and attitudes toward animals, which would be regarded as human creations, inventions and commodities rather than as God's creation or subjects of nature."

Congress is considering legislation calling for a moratorium on the patenting of such genetically altered animals.

The religious community has been nearly unanimous in its support for a moratorium on the issuing of such patents until more thought has been given to the implications of such actions.

Pope John Paul II, in his most recent encyclical, declared that humanity "cannot use with impunity the different categories of beings, whether living or inanimate animals, plants, the natural elements simply as one wishes, according to one's economic needs."

And a special consultation of the World Council of Churches, which is sponsoring a long-term theological study on the "integrity of creation," warned against the "consumerist and anthropomorphic world view that denigrates both matter and the extra-human species," but said a Christian theology based in Christ's love of the world calls for humans to "embrace the whole creation with compassion."

The Rev. Wesley Granberg-Mi-chaelson, head of the New Creation Institute, said the call for a moratorium on the granting of patents does not mean the ethicists and theologians oppose all applications of biotechnology nor its potential use in medical research.

"Rather," he said, "it declares that extending the patenting process to higher life forms, including human genetic characteristics, will give a powerful economic incentive to assumptions that view life solely as if it were a material human invention.

"The result is an arrogant and mechanized view of the created order that is religiously and ethically ignorant and poses a profound threat to the integrity of the creation," he said.

Members of the special consultation charged that the patent office had acted in a hasty manner in granting the patent and pre-empted the necessary public debate, and "the relevance of philosophical and ethical considerations was not weighed sufficiently."

The statement said matters that continue to need sustained public debate include "the current practice of combining human with non-human genetic material, unknown risks to human life, the probable suffering of the animals in question, provision for humane care, the risk of adverse environmental impacts and the possibility of deleterious economic and social effects on farmers and world consumers."

In addition to Granberg-Michael-son, participants at the consultation included Timothy Lull, Lutheran Theological Seminary, Philadelphia; the Rev. Verlyn Barker, United Church of Christ Board for Homeland Ministries; J. Robert Nelson, The Institute of Religion, Texas Medical Center, Houston; the Rev. Allan Janssen, Reformed Church in America; the Rev. Milton Efthi-mious, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America; the Rev. William Gibson, Presbyterian Church (USA); Arlene MacLin, Progressive National Baptist Church, Rabbi Harold White, International Network for Religion and Animals; Peggy Shriver, National Council of Churches, Dr. Michael Fox, Humane Society of America, and Paul Simmons, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.