BECAUSE of a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals last Thursday, the question of tax exemptions for schools that discriminate is back in the courts today and likely to remain there until it is resolved. That's right where it belongs.

The controversy began on Jan. 8, when the president announced that he would no longer deny tax exemptions to schools that have a policy of discrimination. This pronouncement amazed lawyers, educators and civil rights leaders who thought the matter had been settled for 12 years. President Nixon had cut off tax breaks for Jim Crow private schools in 1970, and federal courts had concurred in the policy since that time.

>When he announced this change in tax policy in January, President Reagan, through the Justice Department, also asked the Supreme Court to stop proceedings in two cases before the court challenging the denial of tax exemptions for Bob Jones University and for the Goldsboro Christian Schools. If the tax exemptions were granted, he reasoned, there was no need for the Supreme Court to decide the cases. They were moot. The Supreme Court, however, has not yet acted on the request.

In response to the president's announcement, two things happened. Congress considered passing legislation, proposed by the president, that would restore to the IRS the power to deny tax exemptions to segregated schools. This bill, however, has been opposed by both sides: those who think that legislations is undesirable and those who think it is unnecessary. As weeks go by and no action is taken, it becomes increasingly unlikely that Congress will grapple with this problem and pass the bill. There is a stalemate.

On another front, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law went to court asking for an injunction prohibiting the executive branch from granting tax exemptions to the schools in question. On Thursday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals here in Washington granted the request and told the government that, for the time being, no such tax exemptions may be issued. Thus, the court of appeals has stopped the administration in its tracks and prevented the president from carrying out his Jan. 8 pledge.

What should be done to cut through this morass and settle the question once and for all? The most sensible approach would be for the government to go back to the Supreme Court, announce that the controversy is still a live one and ask the court to proceed with the Bob Jones and Goldsboro cases, which technically are still on the docket. Such action would be welcomed by Congress and would provide the clear direction that the executive branch seems to believe is needed. Best of all, this course would enable the court to decide for the first time an important constitutional question: can tax exemptions be denied to schools that claim to discriminate for religious reasons? That's an important aspect of this problem that deserves consideration by the Supreme Court. The president should ask the court to proceed.