WASHINGTON (AP) _ Nearly 200 religious leaders urged the government Thursday to ban the patenting of human genes and genetically engineered animals. Ownership and commercialization of life are grotesque, they declared.

Gene patenting ``represents the usurpation of ownership rights of the sovereign of the universe,'' said Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention. ``Designer human beings are just over the horizon.''

Scientists said the move could halt research on lifesaving therapies, and bioethicists said it promised to touch off a tough congressional fight pitting public health against religion.

``It's a classic clash between science and religion, the conflict of the ages,'' said Lawrence Gostin, professor of law and public health at Georgetown University. ``I'm very sympathetic to their moral claims. ... But you have to ask how you work out the moral cost of all the avoiding of disease we could have had'' if such patents are banned.

A joint statement signed by 180 Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist leaders called for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to immediately proclaim a moratorium on gene patents until Congress can ban them.

No such legislation has yet been introduced but the religious coalition, brought together by Jeremy Rifkin, an opponent of biotechnology, also delivered its call to every member of Congress.

``This is the beginning of an historic discussion,'' Rifkin said. ``Is life God's creation or is life a human invention?''

The patent office rejected the moratorium, saying in a statement Thursday that it could not discriminate against a particular field. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that patents are available for ``literally anything under the sun'' that involves human intervention, the office noted.

Biotechnology companies say genetic patents are their financial pillar. They spend millions of dollars to find a gene responsible for a disease and then millions more finding a way to manipulate the gene to fight that disease.

Patenting a gene doesn't mean a company owns it. It provides 17 years of protection from competitors seeking to commercialize the discovery, said Carl Feldbaum of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which issued a statement from patient advocacy groups that support gene patents.

Without patent protection, companies couldn't fund the genetic research that has led to 29 biotech drugs now for sale in this country, treating killers from cystic fibrosis to heart attack, he said. Just Wednesday, Genzyme Transgenics announced it was preparing to cull potential cancer-killing proteins from the milk of the company's patented, genetically engineered goat.

``Once we allow all of life to be defined as mere products of human invention ... we denigrate our reverence to God,'' said Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, who compared genetic patenting to Frankenstein.

The patents allow a single company to profit from a natural resource, which violates the teachings of Islam, said Abdurahman Alamoudi of the American Muslim Council. It's analogous to patenting oxygen, added Bishop Kenneth Carder of the United Methodist Church.

The religious leaders argued that they do not oppose biomedical research in general, but insisted that companies could find lifesaving therapies without patenting genes in the process. ``There are funds available to do research,'' Carder declared.

But funding is precarious, Feldbaum said. Congress is considering slashing funds for the National Institutes of Health by up to $1 billion, and NIH research forms the backbone of biomedicine.