The American Bar Association today lifted its prohibition on religious discrimination by private law schools and accredited a school at Oral Roberts University that openly discriminates on the basis of religious belief.

The action followed one of the most impassioned debates in recent ABA history. Supporters of the change said that denial of accreditation, which could have put the school out of business, tampered with the basic right of a church to practice its religion.

Opponents said the ABA was legitimizing blatant discrimination and setting a precedent for future exclusionary practices by other law schools.

"This is contrary to the whole history of this country," Erwin Griswold, former U.S. solicitor general and former dean of the Harvard Law School told ABA delegates before the 147-to-127 vote to change the anti-discrimination standard. "Any institution that wants to will be able to put up a sign that says no Jews admitted or no Catholics admitted," he said.

The ABA acted under the pressure of a federal court order which had held unconstitutional an earlier ABA denial of accreditation to the Roberts law school.

The O.W. Coburn Law School, established in 1979 at Roberts' Tulsa campus, admits and hires only those who first sign an oath pledging allegiance to the evangelist's "charismatic Christian" tenets. A student or faculty member who changes his mind after admission or hiring may be dismissed as a result.

Almost all states require applicants for law practice to graduate from an ABA-accredited school. The ABA's accrediting board -- the Section on Law School Education and Admissions to the Bar -- had ruled the Coburn school acceptable academically last year but denied accreditation because of the oath.

The ABA House of Delegates voted to change the anti-discrimination standard to allow religion-affiliated schools to "adopt policies of admission and employment that directly relate" to its religious purpose so long as all job and student applicants are notified in advance of the policies.

It then voted three-year "provisional accreditation" for the law school, which means that accreditation will be reviewed again in three years. This is the same procedure used in accrediting all new law schools.

"We would be forcing the philosophy of secularism" on Oral Roberts University if accreditation is denied, said Joseph G. Gallagher, a delegate from Pennsylvania. "A religious institution has the right to be free from being subjected to a foreign philosophy," he said. "The ABA is free to judge the quality of a law school but not to judge its philosophy."

Arguing against accreditation, Peter F. Langrock, head of the ABA's section on individual rights, told the delegates that in changing the standard "we are becoming a part of the process of legitimizing discrimination."

The ABA has struggled over the accreditation of other religious law schools, including Brigham Young (Mormon) and Yeshiva University (Jewish). But the Roberts school was the first among them to openly demand the taking of an oath, an oath which the school regards as a legal contract between it and those associated with it.

The oath says that the students "will endeavor to exemplify Christ-like character . . . through faithful group worship on and off campus."

"I will yield my personality to the healing and maturing power of the Holy Spirit," the oath says.

Like Roberts' other institutions, the law school requires adherence to a unique philosophy and regimen. Robert K. Skolrood, a faculty member and lawyer for the school, said that it teaches, among other things, that disputes sometimes can be resolved by Christian biblical principles.

In accordance with Roberts' stress on healing and health, the school requires a program of aerobics, jogging, sports, and fitness as an article of faith. Fat people are looked upon with disfavor and are supposed to lose weight, Skolrood said. Roberts "wants you to gain control of your own willpower," the lawyer said.

These requirements, the university argued here and in court, were none of the ABA's business. "Nobody forces anyone to go to Oral Roberts University," Richard C. Godfrey, a Chicago lawyer representing the school, told accreditation officials during a hearing here last week.

The ABA argued in court last month that the denial of accreditation did not interfere with religious practice. The school remained free to do as it pleased without ABA accreditation, it argued. But U.S. District Judge James B. Moran agreed with Oral Roberts University, saying that because accreditation is a requirement of state laws, ABA decisions become tantamount to government actions penalizing a religious group and interfering with the free exercise of religion.

The ABA's votes today amount to an acceptance of the court order and a decision not to appeal to higher courts.