Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, charged Tuesday that the Clinton administration is gutting the new Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

That law - sponsored by Hatch - was passed last year to prevent government interference with the exercise of religion except in extreme cases where the government shows it has a "compelling interest" to do so.But Hatch complained that in the first appeal testing the law, the Justice Department is setting too low a standard to allow government interference.

It seeks to force an evangelical church to give the government all tithing paid by two members during the year before they filed bankruptcy. That money - which Hatch said was paid in good faith - would be put in a pool to repay creditors.

Bankruptcy laws allow trustees to recover any transfer of assets made during the year before bankruptcy to prevent debtors from fraudulently disposing of or shielding assets.

But Hatch said that in this case, "the government's interest is simply enlarging the pool of assets for creditors, not preventing fraud. This interest does not satisfy the compelling-government-interest standard that must be met."

He added, "If the department's position prevails, it will have a disastrous impact on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, rendering it virtually meaningless."

Hatch contended it would create such a broad definition of a "compelling state interest" that it would "once again eliminate any real protection of religious liberty under the First Amendment."

Hatch complained that when Clinton signed the bill into law six months ago, "he noted correctly that the act requires that the government should be held to a very high level of proof."

Hatch said, "Perhaps this is the kind of limited protection President Clinton envisioned . . . but I can say quite confidently that this is not the type of protection Congress fought so hard and so long to restore."

He said he will ask Attorney General Janet Reno to reconsider the administration's position in the case.