The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide whether abortion-rights groups may seek to force the Internal Revenue Service to strip the Roman Catholic Church of its tax-exempt status because of the church's antiabortion efforts.

The justices said they will hear an appeal by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the United States Catholic Conference from contempt citations for not turning over internal documents to abortion-rights groups. The court's action frees the two Catholic organizations, at least temporarily, from possible fines of $100,000 a day for not turning over the documents.

The justices said they will consider whether the abortion-rights groups have the legal standing to pursue their action and not whether the IRS has acted unconstitutionally in granting the tax exemptions.

In other action yesterday, the justices:

Agreed to hear a challenge to the constitutionality of Maryland's death penalty statute. The justices said they will decide in Mills v. Maryland whether to overturn the death sentence of a Maryland convict who killed a cellmate at the state prison in Hagerstown in 1984. The inmate, Ralph William Mills, was sentenced in 1982 in Baltimore to serve 30 years for armed robbery and second-degree murder in the death of an art restorer.

Mills, in his appeal, argued that the Maryland law was improperly weighted against defendants, effectively excluding consideration of mitigating factors and requiring a death sentence if the jury found "a single aggravating factor in the absence of any mitigating factor." In a case involving suspects' rights under the court's 1966 Miranda ruling, the justices said they will decide whether police in Tucson violated a man's rights by questioning him -- and obtaining a confession -- in one burglary after he had refused to discuss another burglary until talking with a lawyer. The case is Arizona v. Roberson.

In the tax-exemption case, 21 abortion prochoice groups and individuals, led by the Abortion Rights Mobilization Inc. (ARM), sued the IRS in 1980, saying it allowed the Catholic organizations to violate the tax code in conducting a "nationwide, persistent and regular pattern" of intervening in elections in favor of candidates who support the church's position on abortion.

By "exempting the Catholic Church from the tax code," ARM argued, the government has granted it a subsidy for "partisan political activity -- a subsidy denied to" the prochoice groups. That "favoritism," the prochoice groups said in their brief, violates the First Amendment's required separation of church and state.

The case acted upon yesterday involves ARM's demand for internal church documents to prove that the IRS has been acting unconstitutionally.

The bishops' conferences refused to turn over the documents, arguing that the prochoice groups had no legal authority to try to force the IRS to revoke another group's tax exemptions.

The Reagan administration and a large number of religious organizations have supported the Catholic groups. The administration argued that ARM essentially wanted to dictate law-enforcement decisions for the federal government. Even allowing the case to go to trial, the administration said, would encourage suits by other groups dissatisfied with IRS treatment of their rivals.

The Catholic organizations, which have been on the losing side through much of this legal battle, saw yesterday's action as a hopeful sign. It is "great news," said Msgr. Daniel Hoye, general secretary of the two conference groups. "We are very pleased that the court has decided to hear this case . . . . Many people have said that if we can get it heard at the Supreme Court, we can prevail." Yesterday's action, he said, meant the Catholic groups had "an open door."

Michael Woodruff, an official of the evangelical Christian Legal Society who coordinated filing of a brief supporting the Catholic Church on behalf of a number of religious organizations, said he was "hopeful that the court will think about the legal implications in the larger social and religious context in which it is placed. We are concerned about what happens when churches are asked to turn over documents in litigation, about the breach of confidentiality."

The Rev. Dean M. Kelley, an official of the National Council of Churches, said the court's decision to hear the case likely means the justices "will do something different from the lower {appeals} court."

But Marshall Beil, an attorney for abortion-rights groups, said he was "confident the high court will affirm what the lower courts did" and declare that ARM has legal standing to pursue its lawsuit. That would clear up a "major procedural problem" for an eventual trial on the lawsuit.Staff writer Marjorie Hyer contributed to this report.