The American Bar Association today refused to require law schools to adopt affirmative-action admissions policies as a condition of accreditation.

Those opposing the requirement said it violated the principles of academic freedom. They rejected pleas that defeat of the proposal would tarnish the image of the profession and of the ABA as well as contribute to a drop in minority enrollments.

"Accreditation should not depend on whether an institution serves social and economic ideals," said Terrence Sanilow, dean of the University of Michigan Law School, who spoke in opposition. Besides, he said, "very few qualified minority applicants failed to gain admission to law schools."

The proposal would not have required the imposition of quotas or special admission criteria for minorities. It demanded only an active "commitment" to expansion of "opportunities for the study of law and entry into the profession by minority group members" victimized by discrimination. The proposal suggested, but did not compel, special recruitment efforts and financial and schedules for minorities.

The ABA House of Delegates -- which has a black membership of four out of 380 -- did not reject the accreditation requirement outright but simply voted to defer the subject, pending further study.

Agreement to do so came despite the Association of American Law Schools' support of the proposal and pleas from a biracial group of lawyers for at least a symbolic gesture from the House of Delegates.

The association did, however, go on record today against discrimination in housing for the first time in its history. But a resolution in support of the D.C. voting rights amendment was withdrawn before it ever reached the floor of the House for debate. The Board of Governors, highest ABA body, had voted not to take a position on the issue.

The debate over the affirmative-action accreditation requirement was among the most vigorous in the House of Delegates' two-day semi-annual meeting, which ended today.

Supporters argued that even though the number of minority students had increased over the past two decades, there was still a vast under-repesentation in the law profession.

"I ask you to look around this house," said Dennis W. Archer, a black lawyer form Detroit. "Present are only four black lawyers. If there were eight -- double the number -- would that be unreasonable?"

According to Association of American Law Schools statistics, the number of female law school enrollees has increased from about 2,000 to 36,000 over the past 15 years. The number of black law students during the same period has doubled to about 5,300.

Beyond the numbers, said George T. Barrow, representing the National Conference of Bar Examiners, "there is a dimension of symbolism. The failure to pass the proposal will be regarded as a symbol of where the heart of the ABA really lies."