This is a story of a presidential directive to the Civil Service Commission which, for all its seeming simplicity, is the subject of some headscratching bewilderment among its authors and recipients.

The directive from President Carter, dated June 2, was addressed to Alan Campbell, chairman of the Civil Service Commission. It said:

"It has been brought to my attention that Chapter 410, subchapter 8, paragraph of the Federal Personnel Manual, entitled 'Nonparticipation in Segregated Meetings or Conferences,' addressed only discrimination based on race.

"It is this administration's policy that federal officials should not participate in private conferences or meetings held in facilities which discriminate on the basis of sex, religion, or national origin, as well as race. Accordingly, I request that you take whatever action is appropriate to amend the above cited provision to effect this policy."

The President, clearly was striking a blow for women's right, not to mention religious and ethnic toleration. The White House press office thought enough of the memo to release it to the public.

But what, some wondered, did those two crisp paragraphs ean?

Did they mean that henceforth federal officials could not address the Knights of Columbus, which admits only Roman Catholic males; or B'nai B'rith, which is open only to Jews; or the Girl Scouts of America, which bars little boys from membership.

Or was the reference to segregated "facilities" deliberate , so you could address the Knights of Columbus meeting in a hotel, but not at the Knights of Columbus hall.

Did it mean that the Marine Corps could actively recruit at a coeducational university, but not at an all-male liberal arts college?

And if it didn't mean any of those things, what did it mean?

Inquiries were launched to find out, beginning with George McQuoid, the deputy director of the Civil Service Commission.

"I'm not sure any of us is in a position to state one way of the other," McQuoid responded. "It's going to require a little bit of looking into."

Next, Jim Scott, the acting director of the commission's equal employment opportunity program, was asked.

"I don't know," he said. "I hope it doesn't mean that we get into these silly things like mother-daughter banquets."

Scott said his first reaction to the President's memo had been, "What could we possibly be doing that would be violating this?"

"I guess we'll have to ask some questions and see if anybody is violating it," he said.

But Scott said he had put the directive aside until the return to Washington earlier this week of Joe Lowell, the commission's assistant executive director, who was thought to be the expert on the subject. "It didn't seem like something that couldn't wait until next week," Scott said.

Lowel was familiar with the Carter memo and with the existing regulation on race, which became a part of the civil service regulations as a result of a similar memo from President Johnson.

The Johnson letter referred not only to segregated facilities, but to any officials contact with racially segregated organizations. Lowell said that while the Carter memo referred only to paragraph on facilities, he was certain the President intended a broader application. And while all the Civil Service Commission had to guide it was the two paragraphs from the Oval Office, he was equally sure that Carter did not intend to bar federal officials from meetings of the Girl Scouts."What I read," he said, "is the spirit - it seems President Carter is saying what President Johnson did that you should give neither the fact nor the appearance of endorsing some segregated outfit."

Lowell said he did not know what prompted the President to issue the directive. All he knew was that several weeks before it showed up on his desk he had a call from someone name Joe Cornelison at the White House asking how to go about amending the Johnson regulation.

Cornelison was a young volunteer working on legal matters who is no longer at the White House, an aide in his office said. But he had worked for Deputy White House counsel Margaret McKenna. Maybe she would know.

McKenna didn't know. It was not, she said, a matter of Carter discovering the existing regulation and ordering his legal staff to find a way to broaden it. It started with the legal staff, but exactly how she couldn't remember.

The memo was drafted, sent to the President and he signed it. He issued no other instructions on how it should be interpreted.

"I'm not quite sure we thought this all the way through," McKenna said when asked about the Girl Scouts. The intention, she said, "was to treat sex just like race."

"We gave marching orders to the Civil Service Commission and hopefully they will look at all the ramifications," she added.

Over at the Commission, Lowell said the next step was to acknowledge receipt of the presidential directive, to update the instructions to government agencies, to "call to official attention" the President's wishes in the matter. There is no telling how much paper will be generated in the wake of the two paragraphs from the White House.

And there is no way to tell what effect, if any, it will have. Everyone involved is sure the directive does not mean that federal officials no longer can speak to the Girl Scouts, Knights of Columbus or B'nai B'rith. Which still leaves the question of what it does mean.

"Maybe Joe Lowell knows," Scott said. "I knid of hope he does."

Minimally, there is a symbolism," Lowell said. "When the President speaks, that conveys an attitude on his part, a spirit.

"Good question," said McKenna.