THERE ARE SOME grounds for encouragement in the Virginia House of Delegates' latest refusal to take up the Equal Rights Amendment. Two years ago, when Del. Dorothy McDiarmid (D-Fairfax) and her allies tried to bypass the House committee that has bottled up ratification measures since 1973, they lost, 36 to 62. Last Friday the vote was 42 for House debate on ERA, with 52 for sending it to the committe again. We count that as progress, however slow.

Those 42 votes mean more because the committee system is sacrosanct in Richmond, where lawmakers don't buck tradition lightly. And it's doubly hard to go against a panel when its chairman puts up a fight, as Warren White (D-Norfolk), who is privileges and elections committee chairman, did on Friday -- even though he favors ERA.

So it's heartening that 42 delegates recognize that the ERA battle in Virginia involves two issues now. One is the merits of the amendment, which we think have been amply shown. The second is whether the elected representatives of all Virginians should be allowed -- and required -- to vote on ratifying a proposed amendment to the Constitution that Congress has submitted to the states. That is what the vote Friday was really about.

The General Assembly's refusal to deal fairly with ERA was, of course, one reason Congress voted last year to extend the time for ratification beyond the original deadline this March. That means the lawmakers in Richmond have not heard the last of it. On the contrary, they seem to be hearing from more supporters of the measure all the time. For instance, pro-ERA members of the Mormon church have started speaking out, in direct opposition to the views of the church's national leadership. And now voters throughout the state know just which delegates have refused even to bring up the amendment for debate. That roll call could make a difference in some of this year's campaigns.