Kabataan party-list Rep. Raymond Palatino recently filed House Bill 6330 or the proposed “Religious Freedom in Government Offices Act,” which seeks to prohibit the display of religious symbols and the conduct of religious ceremonies within the premises and perimeter of government offices, including public places and corridors.
It is high time we have a law like this to give more teeth to the establishment clause under Art. III Sec. 5 of the Philippine Constitution, which states that no law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, and uphold the inviolable separation of Church and State under Sec. 6 of our Declaration of Principles.
We can better appreciate the sanctity of this separation by looking into US jurisprudence. In Engel v. Vitale, the United States Supreme Court made a landmark ruling that determined that it is unconstitutional for the State to compose prayers and require them to be recited in public schools, including the following non-denominational prayer which triggered the parents of ten pupils to take the issue to court:
Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.
The US Supreme Court gave the following decision:
Because of the prohibition of the First Amendment against the enactment of any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” which is made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment, state officials may not compose an official state prayer and require that it be recited in the public schools of the State at the beginning of each school day – even if the prayer is denominationally neutral and pupils who wish to do so may remain silent or be excused from the room while the prayer is being recited.
In delivering the opinion of the court, Mr. Justice Black said:
The Establishment Clause, unlike the Free Exercise Clause, does not depend upon any showing of direct governmental compulsion and is violated by the enactment of laws which establish an official religion whether those laws operate directly to coerce nonobserving individuals or not. This is not to say, of course, that laws officially prescribing a particular form of religious worship do not involve coercion of such individuals. When the power, prestige and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plain.
While Engel v. Vitale reinforced the Church-State separation in the US as early as 1962 when the case was decided, secularism is still facing many obstacles in the Philippines even in the 21st century. In Cebu City, some powerful people expressed opposition to Palatino’s House Bill 6330. Mayor Michael Rama said in Cebuano, “It seems he’s trying to fight religion. Why would he want to mess with tradition?” Msgr. Esteban Binghay also said in Cebuano, “Why should people want to keep God out of some places, when all of creation belongs to him?”
It seems that what the opponents do not understand about this bill is that it does not seek to fight religion or to keep God out of some places, but simply to prohibit the government from establishing any religion whether directly or indirectly, which is fully in line with the religious freedom guaranteed in our Constitution. Going back to Engel v. Vitale, Mr. Justice Black further said:
It has been argued that to apply the Constitution in such a way as to prohibit state laws respecting an establishment of religious services in public schools is to indicate a hostility toward religion or toward prayer. Nothing, of course, could be more wrong… [T]he First Amendment, which tried to put an end to governmental control of religion and of prayer, was not written to destroy either… it was written to quiet well-justified fears which nearly all of them felt arising out of an awareness that governments of the past had shackled men’s tongues to make them speak only the religious thoughts that government wanted them to speak and to pray only to the God that government wanted them to pray to. It is neither sacrilegious nor antireligious to say that each separate government in this country should stay out of the business of writing or sanctioning official prayers and leave that purely religious function to the people themselves and to those the people choose to look to for religious guidance.
While the Philippine Constitution guarantees that the free exercise of religion shall forever be allowed, it is a guarantee given to the people to choose their own religion; what is commanded to the State by the same constitutional provision is for it not to endorse any religion and discriminate against people of other religions or no religion.
Kudos to Rep. Raymond Palatino for filing the Religious Freedom in Government Offices Act! May this timely bill be passed to help uphold the supposedly inviolable principle that has often been taken for granted in this country – the principle of separation of Church and State.
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Image by Jong Atmosfera