The Bill of Rights 1982

Perhaps the greatest strength of the United States lies in the freedoms guaranteed by its enduring Constitution. Today, however, some constitutional rights are under severe challenge - a fact which should stir Americans to constructive thought and discussion.

As the series by Monitor writer Curtis Sitomer ending today brings out, controversies over such issues as separation of church and state, rights and responsibilities of news media, and the administration of justice have raised fundamental constitutional questions. Critics of certain government practices, for instance, reject the way judges, politicians, and other officials interpret the Constitution. The ''New Right,'' in particular, wants a sharp reversal of judicial rulings on school prayer, abortion, capital punishment, and busing for purposes of racial balance - to be accomplished through congressional action or through constitutional amendment which would forbid review of these issues by the courts.

Many legal scholars believe such ''court stripping'' is in itself unconstitutional. It tampers with the balance of powers among the three branches of government. Ironically, many of those who call for such interference with the governmental process on the national level also decry the federal reach into almost all areas of citizens' lives.

It is true that the federal government, especially the courts, are often involved in affairs which could be handled at the state and local levels - or even through private resolution. Federal courts are overloaded with cases dealing with issues ranging from prisoner complaints about food to land zoning.

However, there are issues of a constitutional nature that require adjudication by the US Supreme Court. Among the most important are those concerning church and state. Prayer in the schools and tax credits for sectarian schools, for example, threaten intrusion of the state in church affairs and governmental manipulation of public school enrollment.

In the area of press rights, there are risks in current efforts to limit the Freedom of Information Act and media access to government documents - reforms designed to enhance public knowledge without endangering national security or compromising personal privacy. The closing of pretrial hearings and municipal board meetings to media coverage is also questionable unless there are valid reasons for such secrecy .

To be sure, the press must exercise restraint and judgment, and have a good sense of the public interest. But, looking at the control of information in totalitarian societies, it is clear that freedom of the press is imperative to freedom of a nation. The executive and the Congress should be scrupulously careful not to undermine that freedom.

Perhaps the broadest attack on constitutional interpretation today relates to the criminal justice system. Heinous crime can sometimes go unpunished when courts find improper use of police powers or improprieties in the legal process. How can abuse of the system be curbed without infringing on the constitutional protections of the accused? The answer is not always clear.

However, it does not lie in highhanded actions. ''Search and seizure'' and admissable-evidence protections under the Fourth Amendment are wise. But they are sometimes interpreted unwisely. The so-called ''insanity'' defense in a criminal trial may also have its place. But it should not serve to put an individual back on the streets who is dangerous to society.

Much can be done to protect the Constitution by revitalizing the public's understanding of it. Most worthwhile, for example, are the efforts of such organizations as the American Bar Association and the Constitutional Rights Foundation which sponsor programs to teach constitutional rights and respect for the law. The upcoming 200th anniversaries of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights will provide a special opportunity to inculcate public awareness.

In the final analysis, no Constitution or Bill of Rights in and of itself can ensure lasting liberty. Freedom is born in the hearts and minds of men, and that is where it must continue to be nurtured and defended.

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