EQUAL ACCESS sounds like such a simple idea. It is the belief that schools which sanction student meetings for extracurricular purposes ought to allow meetings of religious groups as well. Disturbed by cases where Bible- study groups, for example, were denied permission to meet on school property, Congress passed a law earlier this year forbidding school officials from encouraging one kind of group and banning another for reasons of religion. Arguments against allowing religious meetings in the public schools were brushed aside; suggestions that it was unwise to allow students in a public school to separate themselves according to religious belief for this purpose were dismissed. Compliance was going to be simple and everything was going to work smoothly. But that's not how it is turning out.

In Catonsville, Md., for example, a student religious group cited the new law in asking a high school principal for permission to meet in school. The county superintendent of schools turned to Attorney General Stephen Sachs for guidance, and now there is a comprehensive memorandum outlining procedures for all schools in the state. The groups should be allowed to meet, says the attorney general, but only on their own initiative, on students' own free time and without any supervision, notice or participation of any kind by school authorities. In essence, any student should be allowed to determine what to do with his free time, and if he chooses to meet with a prayer group and that group can find a free room, so be it. Mr. Sachs believes that the federal equal access law is unconstitutional and he would tolerate religious meetings only in circumstances where the school plays no part -- even that of allotting space or keeping order. No one knows yet what problems this hands-off policy for meetings on school property will produce.

In Boulder, Colo., the new law has caused more disruption. According to our Denver correspondent, T. R. Reid, the Boulder community was so divided, so bitterly split over the question of religious meetings in school that authorities have now banned all group meetings that are not curriculum-related. This means an end to the chess club, social service programs and all student political organizations. But it probably complies with federal law, since no group is discriminated against because all are banned.

Implementation of the equal access law is certain to cause problems, confusion and recrimination in one community after another. The law undoubtedly will give rise to a whole new series of court cases that will be costly and divisive. All this because some lawmakers want to encourage prayer and religious meetings not only in churches and at home but in every public secondary school in the land. A far better approach would be to protect religion by keeping it separate from the state and out of compulsory public schools. The law should be repealed.