HOUSTON (AP) _ William H. Murto, who co-founded Compaq Computer Corp. in 1982, is leaving the high-flying maker of personal computers so he can study religion, the company said Tuesday.

''I am now ready to make a move I have been planning for several years,'' Murto said in a news release.

Murto is 41 or 42 years old and is the company's vice president for sales, company spokesman Jeff Stives said.

Murto told fellow employees on Monday that he would leave the company April 20 and begin studying for a master's degree in religious education at the University of Houston this summer, Stives said.

''My feeling, frankly, is he's doing what we'd all like to do'' by stepping off the fast track to pursue a long-time goal, Stives said. ''He would have probably done it earlier if he'd had the opportunity to do so.''

Murto was not available for interviews.

Compaq, which makes IBM-compatible personal computers, reached the ranks of the Fortune 500 in three years, faster than any other company. It took Apple Computer Inc. five years to crack the list.

Murto founded Compaq along with Rod Canion, who is president and chief executive officer, and James M. Harris, who is vice president of engineering.

Murto helped establish the company's marketing and authorized dealer distribution strategy. He has managed Compaq's sales organization since June 1985.

''When I accepted the vice president of sales position I had two major priorities: identify and train a successor and strengthen the sales management team,'' Murto said. ''I have completed that assignment.''

Canion said the company was sorry to see Murto go, but had been preparing for his departure. He will be replaced as vice president of sales by Ross A. Cooley, who has been the company's director of corporate sales since 1985.