TO THE UNDERSTANDABLE dismay of civil rights organizations in Virginia, the administration of Gov. John N. Dalton is blocking efforts to make the state's open housing law work.As a result, the law remains little more than an unenforceable statement of what should be strict state policy. The administration's ringing endorsement of legislative inertia comes in an order from the governor's secretary of commerce and resources, Maurice B. Rowe. He has ordered the Virginia Real Estate Commission to withdraw proposed amendments that would give that agency the power to lift real estate licenses of brokers who are found to have violated the fair housing law.

The excuse -- or tradition, as the administration prefers to view it -- is that nothing should be done while the law is under court challenge. The governor's press secretary points to "an unwritten but never violated rule that you do not introduce a bill on a matter that is in litigation. It would be laughted out of committee." The joke, he failed to note, is on victims of housing discrimination who think the state law is there to protect them.

That's what others, including the real estate commission, thought when the law was enacted in 1972. The act prohibits housing discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin or sex. Complaints are investigated by a five-member real estate board made up solely of real estate agents. Though the NAACP and other organizations claim that this has led to less-than-aggressive enforcement anyway, it is the lack of sanctions that is the most glaring deficiency. The commission is appealing a state circuit court ruling that it lacks authority to lift an agent's license unless the state attorney general's office has successfully prosecuted the agent in court. This can take years, as well as money, to litigate.

If the administration is serious about the purposes of the law and effective enforcement of it, efforts to improve it should proceed. And if a forthright effort by the Dalton administration on behalf of a better state fair housing law does get "laughed out of committee" in the General Assembly, that is where the blame could be squarely placed.