The Dalton administration has blocked efforts by the Virginia Real Estate Commission to add teeth to the state's open housing law. The move has drawn criticism from civil rights activists.

Secretary of Commerce and Resources Maurice B. Rowe, a member of Gov. John N. Dalton's cabinet, ordered the commission two weeks ago to withdraw proposed amendments that would give the agency the power to lift the real estate licenses of brokers who discriminate against minorities.

A state circuit court judge here has ruled that under the present law, the commission lacks such powers -- a ruling the commission is appealing to the State Supreme court. Rowe and Dalton say they blocked the proposed bill because the litigation is pending.

Critics, who say enforcement of the law is in limbo, contend the administration action illustrates both the opposition of the administration to an effective open housing law and the power of the Virginia Association of Realtors, which opposed the bill and last year lobbied successfully against a similar measure.

"There's no question that the critical factor here is the association -- and that's true whether you're talking about getting administration support or getting the bill through the legislature," said Philip Davidson, president of HOME, Inc., a Richmond-based open housing group.

Without the amendments, contends Richard C. Kast, an assistant attorney general who is the law's administrator, Real Estate Commission efforts to enforce the law are virtually crippled. One result, says Kast, is that he only has about a half dozen active investigations in his files where once he averaged about 20.

"I can't prove it, but my theory is that people perceive the law isn't strong enough so they don't bother making complaints when violations occur," said Kast.

The Virginia Fair Housing Law, passed in 1972, outlaws discrimination in housing based on race, color, religion, national origin or sex -- practices which HOME, the NAACP and other civil rights groups contend are still prevalent throughout the state.

Officials believe the Virginia law is unique because complaints are investigated not by a human rights commission, as in most states, but by the five-member real estate board, which state law requires to be composed solely of real estate agents.

HOME and other groups have charged that in the past the commission and the attorney general's office were less than aggressive in enforcing the law. They point out that the attorney general never brought a court case under the law, while the commission has only twice attempted to revoke the licenses of agents and companies accused of discrimination.

"It's obviously not high on the state's priority list," says Barbara Wurtzel, HOME's executive director. "There's been no enormous enthusiasm for enforcing it."

Kast and officials of the state Department of Commerce, which oversees the real estate board, say they have done their best to enforce the law and point proudly to 15 cases since April 1978 in which suspect firms formally agreed to cease discrimination.

But they concede that the law is weak, especially when it comes to sanctions against violators who refuse to come to terms. The most impressive penalty the commission thought it possessed was the power to revoke licenses.

The first time it attempted to do so was in 1977. That case, filed against a Richmond firm, and three brokers, was dismissed by a state hearing officer who found insufficient evidence.

The second attempt, made last year against the prestigious downtown Richmond firm of Elam and Funsten, led to a court suit in which the company contended the law failed to give the commission the right to revoke the company's license.

Richmond Circuit Court Judge James E. Sheffield, one of the state's few black judges, agreed with the company, ruling that the commission can only revoke an agent's license after the state attorney general's office has successfully prosecuted the agent in court. That process, commission officals complain, can take years and effectively prevents the commission from enforcing the law.

"As things stand now, any respondent (agent) with competent counsel knows there are very few sanctions we can impose to force them to conciliation," said Kast.

HOME president Davidson said his group has stopped bringing complaints to the commission, instead choosing to file its own lawsuits in federal court, a more costly process but one that is more likely to work, he says.

"We made the decision that the commission was just not being effective," said Davidson, whose group has seven federal cases pending.

Davidson, along with Kast and other state oficials, says the opposition of the realtors association was critical in defeating their proposed amendments last year in a House of Delegates subcommittee and were a possible factor in the administration's opposition this year.

Both the governor and Rowe, speaking through Dalton Press Secretary Paul G. Edwards, deny the association's views were a factor this year. Both say they were not approached by the group or by any individual realtor.

Press Secretary Edwards contends there is "an unwritten but never violated rule that you do not introduce a bill on a matter that is in litigation. It would be laughed out of committee."