WASHINGTON (AP) _ A federal judge was asked Tuesday to order the National Endowment for the Arts to allow public access to meetings where grant applications are reviewed.

The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer filed suit last week contending the meetings are required to be open under federal law.

At issue are working groups of the National Council for the Arts, which advises the NEA on grant applications. The working groups are scheduled to meet Thursday, while the full council's open meetings are scheduled for Friday and Saturday.

The newspapers' lawyer, Patrick J. Carome, told U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson the working groups ''played an absolutely integral role in affecting the nature of the deliberations'' at the council's meetings in January.

Two grant applications already had been ''flagged'' for special discussion by the time of the council meeting, he said, adding that the media had no way to find out how the two applications were singled out.

Attorney Peter Modlin, representing the NEA, said the working groups' purpose was ''solely informational'' and that they did not involve deliberations on grant applications.

''Plaintiffs already have a great deal of access to the overall process,'' Modlin said, adding that ordering the working groups' meetings to be opened would harm the council's work.

The newspapers said they wanted to cover the meetings because of the current debate over whether the NEA should restrict grants to arts projects that may be offensive to the public.

Johnson said she would rule on the matter Wednesday.