After years of dispute, 14 educational and religious organizations joined forces here Tuesday to urge that teaching about religion be given greater emphasis in the nation's public schools.

The organizations recommended that religious references be included in courses in art, literature and American history. They issued a statement declaring that such references are "both constitutionally permissible and educationally sound."Their statement drew a sharp distinction between teaching religion, which is unconstitutional in the public schools, and teaching about religion as an important influence on American life.

"You cannot teach a history course without talking about the role of religion," said August Steinhilber, general counsel of the National School Boards Association.

The need for more teaching about religion was endorsed by the two major teacher organizations, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers; the American Association of School Administrators; the National Council for the Social Studies; and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Religious sponsors ranged from conservative groups like the National Association of Evangelicals to more liberal organizations like the National Council of Churches and the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

Others who signed the statement were the American Academy of Religion, the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, the Christian Legal Society, the National Council on Religion and Public Education and Americans United Research Foundation, an affiliate of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Time constraints prevented the U.S. Catholic Conference from fully considering the statement, but Catholic officials were generally supportive of the idea.

"It could lead to greater religious literacy and more tolerance and understanding," said the Rev. Thomas Gallagher, secretary for education at the Catholic Conference.

Historically, religious ritual in the public schools tended to be Protestant in orientation, which is one reason why Catholics formed their own parochial school system in the 19th century.

In 1963, the Supreme Court banned prayer and Bible reading in the public schools, but the court stated explicitly that studying about religion is both permissible and desirable.

Since then, however, most teachers and school boards have shied away from religious materials. Textbook publishers, in an effort to avoid controversy, have treated religion superficially or not at all.

To change this attitude, the 14 sponsoring organizations plan to distribute thousands of explanatory brochures to school directors, administrators, teachers and parents.

The brochures point out that:

- Teaching about religion is not the same as teaching values.

- The biblical story of creation may be discussed in classes, even though it may not be a mandated course for science students.

- An objective discussion of religious holidays is not prohibited.

Backers of the brochure said they hope to promote the more frequent use of religious references in existing courses rather than try to talk schools into offering separate courses in comparative religion.