How can a bill that has 209 sponsors in the House and 48 in the Senate be stalled? That's what has happened to the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1985, a measure designed to overturn a 1984 Supreme Court decision involving Grove City College, which limits the applicability of a number of civil rights laws in institutions receiving federal funds.

There appear to be two different sets of roadblocks. In the Senate, opponents have threatened to sink the bill with nongermane amendments, a tactic they used successfully last year. Busing, right-to-life and school prayer issues may be raised, not because they relate to the Grove City bill but because they are controversial and would, at the very least, cause delay. And enough protracted debate at the right time of the year, as we have learned during the long history of civil rights bills, can kill legislation.

On the House side, where members supported the bill 375-34 last year, there is stalemate on a real issue concerning the law that the bill is designed to reinstate. Before the Supreme Court decision, civil rights statutes prohibited educational institutions receiving federal funds from discriminating on account of sex. Regulations implementing that statute required institutions to provide abortion coverage in health insurance policies and prohibited discrimination in employment, admissions and honor societies against women who had had abortions. Institutions controlled by religious groups may apply for an exemption from regulations that conflict with a specific tenet of the religion. But some church groups want to do away with the abortion-related regulations entirely, not only for religious groups but for everybody. They say that would leave the law "neutral" as to abortion; civil rights groups counter that any legislation making this change would take away important rights.

Compromise is possible on the House side because the dispute is among people who support the basic Grove City bill. The Catholic Conference has been a leading proponent of civil rights legislation for decades, and Rep. Tom Tauke (R-Iowa), the author of the controversial amendment supported by the conference, is also a cosponsor of the bill. They want the bill to pass. And no one wants religious institutions to whom abortion is anathema to be forced to perform or pay for them.

The abortion-regulations conflict need not be settled immediately, for the rules are being applied by the Reagan administration with a strong presumption in favor of institutions that apply for a religious exemption. The Grove City bill, though, is urgent, for each week the government turns away discrimination cases that cannot be pursued until the pre-1984 law is rinstated. A solemn pledge to deal with the abortion regulations after the major bill is passed should reassure church groups and enable civil rights forces to win an impressive victory in the House. They will need that strong vote of confidence behind them for the more difficult struggle to come in the Senate.