Kabataan Rep. Raymond Palatino has withdrawn House Bill 6330 otherwise known as the Religious Freedom in Government Offices Act, which seeks to ban religious images and ceremonies in government offices, “in response to the appeal and clamor of some of our members, constituents and supporters, various groups, institutions and the general public to reconsider the filing of such measure.”
While this is definitely sad news for the advocates of secularism, the fact that one legislator actually had the guts to file a bill like this in a country where the Roman Catholic Church holds considerable influence in politics is already an achievement in itself.
As Palatino said in a statement, ”We are encouraged by the fact that despite the misunderstandings, the bill initiated relevant discussions on freedom of religion as one of the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution.”
Religious freedom is a tricky issue because it is comprised of two principles incorporated in a single provision of the Philippine Constitution: Non-establishment and Free Exercise. In Art. III Section 5, the two sides of religious freedom are laid out as follows:
No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
The first part is the establishment (also called the non-establishment) clause. Jurisprudence has expanded it to mean beyond that of congress making laws that establish a state religion. In Ladlad v. Comelec, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that “it was grave violation of the non-establishment clause for the COMELEC to utilize the Bible and the Koran to justify the exclusion of Ang Ladlad.” Here there was no law made to establish a state religion and it was not even congress that was involved, but Comelec. With this jurisprudence (and possibly others), the (non)establishment clause was interpreted to encompass other government actions and not just those having to do with legislation.
As for the free exercise clause, the rest of Art. III Section 5 states: “The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed. No religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights.”
Former Supreme Court Associate Justice Isagani A. Cruz wrote in Constitutional Law:
The right to religious profession and worship has a two-fold aspect, viz., freedom to believe and freedom to act on one’s beliefs. The first is absolute as long as the belief is confined within the realm of thought. The second is subject to regulation where the belief is translated into external acts that affect the public welfare.
On the freedom to act on one’s beliefs, Cruz added:
As long as it can be shown that the exercise of the right does not impair the public welfare, the attempt of the State to regulate or prohibit such right would be an unconstitutional encroachment.
After reading the full text of the now dead House Bill 6330, I believe it needed some revisions because it seemed incomplete – and yes, unconstitutional. The entire bill was only four pages long including the two-page explanatory note, and the meat of the bill can be found in Section 4 where the heads of government offices, departments, and bureaus are empowered to ensure that:
(a) Religious ceremonies shall not be undertaken within the premises and perimeter of their offices, departments and bureaus, including publicly-owned spaces and corridors within such offices, departments and bureaus.
(b) Religious symbols shall not be displayed within the premises and perimeter of their offices, departments and bureaus, including publicly-owned spaces and corridors within such offices, departments and bureaus.
Section 4(a) does not need any revision because it does not seek to ban personal prayers but only religious ceremonies within the premises and perimeter of and publicly-owned spaces within government offices, departments, and bureaus – and not on public parks and streets since religious activities are not prohibited in these places. In Ignacio v. Ela, the Supreme Court ruled that:
Public squares, roads, highways and buildings are devoted to public use, and, as such, are open to all, without distinction. Incidentally to such use, religious acts may be performed in said public property… So long as the use of public property for religious purposes is incidental and temporary, and such as to be reasonably compatible with the use to which other members of the community are similarly entitled, or may be authorized to make, the injunction in section 23 (3) of Article VI of the Constitution is not infringed.
But as for Section 4(b) of Palatino’s bill, I think it should have been worded to disallow only large religious symbols from being prominently displayed in the halls, corridors, and yards of government buildings, and to allow government employees to place small religious icons on their own desks and cubicle walls – and especially to wear crosses around their necks.
Without clarifying the scope of the ban on religious symbols, the bill would be unconstitutional because it violates the freedom to exercise and profess one’s religious beliefs in ways that don’t impair the public welfare.
While I fully support Palatino’s intention of giving more teeth to the establishment clause, a religious freedom bill simply cannot violate the free exercise clause or any part of the Constitution for that matter. The fatal defect of House Bill 6330 gave our theocratic opponents a legitimate excuse to suppress it and prevented our country from reaching a significant legislative milestone towards a more secular government.
But as freethinkers, we get to learn from our mistakes as well as those of others with whom we share advocacies. And since the issue of religious freedom and especially the non-establishment of religion have now been brought to public debate, the proposed Freedom of Religion in Government Offices Act did not live and die in vain.
While we can wait for another legislator to file a similar bill in the near future, for the meantime we can also hope for a jurisprudence that would declare religious ceremonies and large symbols in government offices unconstitutional if we take the issue all the way to the Supreme Court.
The death of a single bill in no way spells the death of secularism itself.
So let us continue the fight.
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Image by: Jong Atmosfera