WASHINGTON (AP) _ A seemingly dubious Supreme Court was urged Tuesday to let public airports ban religious groups from distributing literature in passenger terminals.

A group known as Jews for Jesus is challenging the constitutionality of a Los Angeles International Airport policy barring the group's members from distributing leaflets.

The policy violates free-speech rights, the group says.

But James R. Kapel, a lawyer for Los Angeles, told the justices the city- run airport is not like a city sidewalk or park, and should be able to exclude activities not related to the airport's operation.

''An airport is not a traditional public forum,'' Kapel said.

But Justice Thurgood Marshall asked, ''What right do you have to stop it? You're singling out one group of people. ... You're singling out a group you don't want to use your facility.''

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist also questioned the policy, which says airport buildings ''shall be limited to airport-related uses.''

A 1983 resolution passed by the city's Board of Airport Commissioners said ''sidewalk areas immediately outside the terminal facilities may be used for activities protected by the First Amendment.''

The Constitution's First Amendment prohibits government restrictions on freedom of speech and the practice of religion.

Lawyers for Jews for Jesus said the resolution violates free-speech rights because the airport, even inside its terminal buildings, is a traditional public forum.

They said Howard Snyder, a minister for the group, wrongly was barred from distributing literature. They said he was not soliciting or accepting any money in return, and was not harassing, touching or otherwise annoying any other person.

Justice John Paul Stevens interrupted Kapel's argument by suggesting that the airport policy prohibits ''what the First Amendment protects.''

Justices Antonin Scalia and Sandra Day O'Connor questioned the 1983 resolution's language, noting that it does not define airport-related activities.

A federal trial judge ruled that the resolution was unconstitutional, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling.

Jay Alan Sekulow, the attorney for Jews for Jesus and Snyder, argued that airports are traditional public forums where First Amendment activities should be allowed.

He said Jews for Jesus has distributed literature at the Los Angeles airport for the past 12 years.

Sekulow cited examples of other free-speech activities permitted under the resolution, including the airport's Christian Science Reading Room and newspaper and magazine stands.

O'Connor noted, however, that those enterprises ''lease out space,'' and Rehnquist asked, ''Anything Christian Science does by leasing, you want to do without leasing?''

A decision in the case, Board of Airport Commissioners vs. Jews for Jesus, 86-104, is expected in July.