A federal appeals court will decide whether a law aimed at preventing minors from gaining access to pornography on the internet should be enforced.

The Justice Department has appealed U.S. District Judge Lowell A. Reed’s Feb. 1 preliminary injunction blocking the Child Online Protection Act from taking effect.

The law, signed by President Clinton last year, would require commercial web sites to collect a credit card number or some other access code as proof of age before allowing internet users to view online material deemed “harmful to minors.”

The April 2 action moves the case to a three-judge panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, said Justice Department spokeswoman Chris Watney.

David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a plaintiff in the case, said he is confident the district court ruling will be upheld.

“The government is going to have an uphill battle in convincing the court of appeals that this law complies with the First Amendment,” he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the law on behalf of 17 clients, claiming it violates the First Amendment’s free speech guarantees and could be used to unfairly prosecute gays and lesbians, AIDS activists, or doctors distributing gynecological information.

ACLU attorney Chris Hansen, who argued the case before Judge Reed, was reluctant to predict how the case will turn out but said “the evidence supports the judge’s decision.”

The Justice Department argued during a six-day hearing in January that the law would act as a “brown paper wrapper” protecting children from pornographic material. The government also said that requiring web sites to install checkpoint areas in front of such material would be easy and inexpensive and not harmful to businesses.

The law is the second major effort by Congress to protect children from internet pornography after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which would have applied to both commercial and noncommercial web sites.

The law calls for maximum criminal penalties of six months in jail and $50,000 in fines. Repeat violators would face an additional $50,000 a day in fines. The law also provides for civil penalties of up to $50,000 a day.