Attorney General Edwin Meese III yesterday named longtime friend Herbert E. Ellingwood to the new Justice Department post of director of the office of liaison services, where he will work with state and local governments, law enforcement groups and bar associations.

Last year, Meese abandoned efforts to seek Ellingwood's nomination to the assistant attorney general's post that oversees judicial appointments, reportedly for fear that Ellingwood's Christian fundamentalist activities would lead to a confirmation battle. His appointment yesterday is not subject to Senate confirmation.

Ellingwood, 55, came to Washington when President Reagan was elected to office. He served as deputy counsel to the president in 1981 before joining the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board. His term as chairman of the board expired March 1.

Ellingwood's friendship with Meese dates from 1948, when they attended high school together. During Reagan's governorship of California, Ellingwood served in several state positions, including legal affairs secretary to Reagan from 1969 to 1974.

When it was disclosed last year that Meese had recommended Ellingwood's nomination as an assistant attorney general, an unusual prenomination campaign against his confirmation was launched by People For the American Way, a liberal organization that focuses on judicial appointments and the separation of church and state.

Opposition to Ellingwood centered on the charge that he had provided help to a Christian "talent bank" operated by the American Coalition for Traditional Values, a network of about 100,000 fundamentalist churches.

Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), chairman of a House subcommittee that looked into the allegation but took no action, accused Ellingwood of showing "a total disrespect for the whole idea of the merit system. He seems to think Christians have a corner on decency. You really have the feeling he thinks he's answering to a higher law."