PITY the poor Congress. By summarily reversing a policy of 12 years' standing and granting tax-exempt status to schools that discriminate, the administration has created a situation for the legislators that can only be described as painful. For Congress is now asked by the president to consider one question that was thought to be settled--racial discrimination in schools--and another that was, until Jan. 8, before the Supreme Court--discrimination for religious reasons.

By sending a bill to Congress that would reverse his own decision on tax-exempt schools, Mr. Reagan has put members on the spot. No one knows quite how to deal with the situation, particularly as it affects religious schools. Civil rights groups oppose the measure on grounds that it is not needed. A number of legislators agree and have introduced resolutions calling upon the president to enforce the law and reinstate the disputed regulations. Leaders of the religious right have denounced the president and call his proposal "a betrayal." In a poignant expression of reluctance to grapple with these competing disclaimers, some senators have even suggested that the whole matter be returned to the courts for settlement. Sen. Bob Dole proposed this method "so that Congress can benefit from the court's wisdom on these difficult constitutional issues." That, of course, is exactly where the most controversial question, the religious one, would be were it not for the Jan. 8 order.

There are two things to be learned from the experience. The president must know that any decision that simultaneously involves racial discrimination, religious liberty and taxes is of direct interest to almost every American and cannot be taken lightly. Advisers who characterize such issues in terms of legal technicalities are misleading. Congress, one would hope, has gained a new appreciation for the courts. The judiciary was created to handle these difficult and emotional constitutional questions in a calm and deliberate manner. Federal judges are given life tenure to protect them from the same political pressures Congress and the president are experiencing. Even the most ardent congressional opponent of judicial activism must now see that there is a reason for having a Supreme Court after all.