Religion and the Constitution

Does the Catholic Church, represented by its bishops, have a right to criticize the government or to influence the political views and conduct of its members?  Does the Catholic Church have a right to criticize Brother Mike Velarde, or to call him to task for supporting charter change in defiance of the Catholic bishops?

From a legal view, the answer is probably yes.  I cannot find in the Constitution anything that would prohibit a church or religious group from commenting on the conduct of government, or from seeking to influence in a non-coercive way the political behavior of its adherents. Similarly, I see nothing unconstitutional or illegal in the call of one of the bishops to investigate Brother Mike’s actions and beliefs for the purpose of determining whether these  are in accord with the teachings of the Catholic Church.  Brother Mike still professes to be a Catholic.

However, I would argue that it is important to assess these actions of the Church in the light of how the Constitution views the place of churches and religions in our political order.  With respect to faith matters, the Constitution’s philosophy is one of cultural pluralism and tolerance.  This is lodged in key provisions of the Charter.

Section 6 of the Charter’s Declaration of Principles and State Policies states:  “The separation of Church and State shall be inviolable.”  Sec. 5 of the Bill of Rights states:  “No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.  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.”

I interpret these commands to mean that our political system will not allow the adoption of an official state religion, nor the  banning of any religion or sect.  It will not favor nor discriminate against any faith. Every citizen is free to choose her own religion or, by implication, not to profess any religion at all.  Furthermore, one’s belief in these matters will never be required as a condition for the enjoyment of civil and political rights.

These principles and policies are operationalized in provisions pertaining to taxation and the use of public money and property.  Sec. 28 of Article 6 exempts from taxes all charitable institutions, churches, convents, mosques, non-profit cemeteries, and lands and buildings used exclusively for religious, charitable, and educational purposes. This is a firm recognition of the positive role that religious groups and churches play in society, as religious groups.  In the U.S., churches that meddle in politics risk losing their tax-free status.

However, I do not think that this provision completely exempts from taxation hospitals and schools run by religious groups.  The spirit of the charter seems in fact to exempt only the non-profit or charity sector of such hospitals and schools.  Neither would it exempt priests, ministers, and preachers from paying individual income taxes.  This view would be consistent with the principle that “taxation shall be uniform and equitable.”

The philosophy of a state standing equally aloof from all its churches and religions is repeated in sec. 29 of the same article.  This provision explicitly prohibits the appropriation or use of public money or property for the benefit or support of any sect, church, sectarian institution, or system of religion, or any religious priest, preacher or minister, except those religious priests or ministers assigned to the armed forces, prisons, orphanages and leprosaria.

I take this to mean that El Shaddai may use the Luneta Grandstand for their religious services, but only on condition that they pay rent like any other private group.  On the other hand, it seems to me that a strict reading of this provision would totally prohibit the use of classrooms in public schools for the support or propagation of any church or religion.  It puts in doubt the legality of the current practice of teaching religion in public schools even on a voluntary basis and after school hours.

There are very good historical and political reasons for the strict separation of church and state in a constitutional liberal democracy like ours.  We want to remove the danger of war of religions, so palpable still in other parts of the world.  We seek a stable political order which will provide equal room to religions with contradictory notions of how life should be lived.

A constitution, however, must draw its life from a culture congenial to its basic principles.  I believe that the culture of pluralism and tolerance that defines our Constitution is still very much in the process of formation in our country.  In some societies, the principle of separation of church and state has meant exiling religion to the private sphere, closer to William James’ notion of religion as what a person does with her solitude.  In others like ours, the easy interweaving of religion and politics in everyday life constantly challenges the meaning of our belief in the constitutional separation of church and state.

I bet that, for all the vexation that Cardinal Sin has caused President Estrada in the past week, the next time the President meets the Cardinal, he will instinctively, and without regard for the proprieties of his office, bend to kiss the Cardinal’s ring.   It will probably raise eyebrows among foreign diplomats, but Filipinos will find it natural. Such is the state of our culture.


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