An attorney in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has complained to Attorney General William French Smith that William Bradford Reynolds, the assistant attorney general responsible for enforcing the federal civil rights laws, is "emasculating" enforcement of laws barring discrimination against the disabled.

Extensions of Reynolds' enforcement policies could "severely circumscribe" protections against discrimination on the basis of race and sex, according to the April 13 memo, written by attorney Timothy M. Cook.

Citing his boss' actions or failure to act in four federal court cases, Cook wrote Smith: "Because of the substantial blow Mr. Reynolds' actions strike to the hopes of not only handicapped persons and their families, but also victims of discrimination based upon race and sex . . . I respectfully take the unusual step of requesting you to review them.

" . . . Your intervention is necessary to prevent the leadership of the Civil Rights Division from emasculating civil rights enforcement in these areas. Although Mr. Reynolds may personally disagree with these requirements, they are . . . binding upon the government."

Smith replied to Cook on April 21 with a terse memo saying: "Mr. Reynolds is accurately reflecting the policies of this department in carrying out his responsibilities."

In a separate memo to Cook on April 20, Reynolds said, "Your memorandum is, quite frankly, appalling in the degree of its reliance on misstatement . . . . It assiduously ignores the many significant initiatives on behalf of handicapped persons that this division has undertaken."

Citing a Supreme Court ruling that qualified federal grantees' obligations to accommodate the disabled, Reynolds said, "I am not at liberty to ignore . . . recent Supreme Court decisions . . . . You on the other hand would prefer that we pick and choose our judicial precedents . . . disregarding those not to our liking."

Attorneys within the Civil Rights Division said that Cook's protest to the attorney general is highly unusual.

Cook's complaint singled out, among other decisions, a memo Reynolds wrote to Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell on March 15 advising him that civil rights investigations of educational institutions should focus only on programs directly benefiting from federal aid.

Less than a week later, Reynolds publicly agreed to abandon 15 months of effort to incorporate this analysis in the rules implementing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

In his memo to Bell, Reynolds advised that, "A recipient which receives only adult education assistance may only be . . . investigated in the operation of its adult education program . . . a recipient which receives only work study funds or Pell grant funds education assistance grants to students may only be . . . investigated in its student financial aid activities." This argument is bitterly opposed by civil rights advocates, who say it effectively eviscerates enforcement of civil rights laws.

Court rulings on the issue have been divided; a Pennsylvania case that raises the question is currently before the Supreme Court.

Cook noted that, shortly after Reynolds sent this advice to Bell, he agreed to support the decision to abandon previous efforts to rewrite the basic regulations governing handicapped discrimination.

In effect, Cook argued, Reynolds is doing in the courts what he agreed not to do by regulation.