RICHMOND, JAN. 15 -- Supporters of Virginia Military Institute's all-male admissions policy, on the defensive in the courts, opened an offensive of their own today on the General Assembly.

Several hundred VMI alumni, parents and other backers descended on the Capitol today, hoping to persuade legislators to leave the taxpayer-supported school alone while a constitutional challenge leveled by the U.S. Justice Department plays out in the federal courthouse in Roanoke.

They got a slight boost from Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, who ended a long silence last fall by condemning single-sex admissions but said today he he has no opinion on legislation expected from Sen. Emilie F. Miller (D-Fairfax) that would force VMI to open its doors to women.

The governor's comments came at a news conference in which he unveiled a proposal that would give state environmental agencies more power to review road projects. State highways are now exempt from the environmental reviews that other projects, such as prisons and hospitals, must submit to.

While VMI supporters were in the majority by far, a small group of critics held a rally today to condemn the policy. One of the group's placards declared, "If women can go to Saudi Arabia, they can go to VMI."

Proponents contend the no-women policy is essential to the intense camaraderie and rigorous discipline the academy in rural Lexington tries to foster among students. And they said it is unfair for the legislature to intervene as long as the school's legal defense is still alive.

"Our message to the General Assembly is a simple one: Don't take hasty action to change VMI's 151-year-old policy," said Stephen C. Fogleman, a VMI alumnus and leader of today's lobbying. "Let the courts decide the constitutional issue."

Fogleman cited a poll, a $26,000 survey by the Wirthlin Group and paid for by VMI alumni, showing that 61 percent of 800 respondents agreed with the statement "it would be inappropriate for the state legislature to preempt the courts."

VMI's prospects for maintaining the single-sex policy are generally considered better in the political arena than in the legal one.

Miller's bill to force VMI to admit women died in the Senate's Education and Health Committee, where Chairman Elmon T. Gray is a VMI graduate and impassioned opponent of admitting women. Miller said today that chances are "pretty slim" that she'll do any better this year.

VMI supporters have hired a former delegate, Henrico County Democrat William Axselle, as a lobbyist.

The VMI partisans were just one of several large groups arriving by busloads today, producing one of the largest General Assembly crowds in recent years. Antiabortion activists held a rally in favor of legislation requiring parental notification when young women have abortions, and American Legion members were in town to urge passage of a constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning.

Environmentalists lauded Wilder's proposal, which would force state highway plans to be examined by an interagency environmental coordination committee, including representatives from state natural resources and historic preservation agencies.

"I can assure you that this new procedure will not increase delays in transportation projects," Wilder said. "In fact, by including natural resource concerns early in the planning and {land} acquisition process, we will avoid costly delays while meeting both transportation and environmental objectives."

The plan requires General Assembly approval.

Environmental activists have complained for years that the state Transportation Department plans roads with little regard for wetlands or other environmentally sensitive land.