Thursday, June 26, 1997

Only courts should
draw lines on rights

CONGRESS occasionally needs to be reminded that legislation aimed at limiting or expanding people's constitutional rights beyond court-imposed boundaries is destined for defeat. Expansion of one person's rights may constrict those of another, and the U.S. Supreme Court remains the final arbiter. With that in mind, the high court has struck down a four-year-old law designed to reverse an earlier court decision and broaden religious rights.

Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in response to a 1990 Supreme Court ruling that native Americans have no constitutional right to ingest the hallucinogenic drug peyote as a religious practice. The court ruled in that case that the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion does not bar enforcement of neutral laws generally applicable to all people.

Many church groups felt threatened by the court's decision. Consequently, Congress passed legislation requiring government to show a "compelling governmental interest" before it could "burden a person's exercise of religion," and then only by the "least restrictive means" of furthering that interest.

When the Texas city of Boerne denied a building permit to a Catholic church so it could tear down its 73-year-old stone church in the city's historic district and build a bigger church, the archbishop of San Antonio claimed protection under the 1993 law. Hawaii and 15 other states sided with the city in maintaining the law went too far in limiting government's ability to maintain public health and safety.

Through its decison, the Supreme Court has retained the right to decide in each case whether a person's religious rights have been abridged. Congress will continue to fashion legislation to protect judicially determined constitutional rights. But the courts properly have the sole authority to determine the scope of those rights.

Jacques Cousteau

WITH the death of Jacques Cousteau at 87, the world has lost a scientist and explorer who did more than anyone else in history to open people's eyes to the wonders of the oceans and the need to preserve them.

French President Jacques Chirac commented that "an enchanter has just left us." That may be as apt a comment as any. Cousteau cast a spell of wonderment over the world on behalf of the oceans and their inhabitants.

Medicare increases

THE Senate vote to require the affluent to contribute more toward the cost of Medicare is a welcome recognition of reality. The program simply cannot be sustained financially without cost revision. As approved by the Senate, the changes would affect 1.6 million Medicare beneficiaries whose incomes exceed $50,000 for individuals and $75,000 for couples.

Hawaiian Village pier

THE state Board of Land and Natural Resources' decision to increase sharply the rental fee paid by Hilton Hawaiian Village for the pier operated by the hotel appears justified in view of the substantial income received by the hotel from Atlantis Submarines, which operates from the facility. But the fee increase is only a temporary measure pending the resolution of legal issues affecting long-term state policy.

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