Reversing a Carter administration position, the Labor Department has decided that the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 does not give handicapped people the right to take job discrimination complaints against federal contractors to court, its top lawyer said yesterday.

That is the Labor Department's job, Solicitor of Labor T. Timothy Ryan Jr. said.

"If someone's been discriminated against under that statute, it's our business to enforce it and we're going to enforce it to the very letter of the law," Ryan said.

But, he added, the statute does not give a handicapped person the right to go to court on his own; the Labor Department must handle the case for him, if department attorneys believe the case has merit.

It is ultimately up to the solicitor general in the Justice Department to determine the government's position on an individual's right to sue.

David Rose, a Justice attorney specializing in civil rights enforcement, said yesterday that Ryan's opinion did not bind the Justice Department, but would probably be given considerable weight.

But the courts would eventually determine whether an individual has the right to sue under the statue.

One section of the rehabilitation act gives Labor's Office of Federal Contract Complaince Programs the task of handling handicapped job discrimination complaints.

But both federal courts and attorneys in various government agencies have disagreed over whether handicapped people can also go to court with their complaints. Individuals would have to bear the cost of the suit if they sue; otherwise the department would be the one to pay.