Commentary: On offending religious beliefs

WHILE in Zamboanga City on June 28, 2018, Vice President Leni Robredo reminded President Rodrigo Duterte and other government officials that freedom of speech has an accompanying obligation “not to offend religious beliefs.” Maria Lourdes Sereno, whose appointment as Chief Justice was rendered null and void by the Supreme Court, also chimed in. She somewhat agreed with Jesus is Lord founder Eddie Villanueva’s position that Duterte violated the preamble of the Constitution when he “mocked” God. Robredo and Sereno are wrong.

There’s no obligation to not offend other people’s religious beliefs. The 1996 Supreme Court decision on Iglesia Ni Cristo v. Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB) is clear about this.

In the early 1990s, the MTRCB gave an X rating to several pre-taped episodes of the INC’s show on ABS-CBN. The episodes were deemed offensive to the religious beliefs of Catholics. Because they were given an X rating, they couldn’t be shown in public.

The INC contested the MTRCB’s action. The Supreme Court found the MTRCB in violation of INC’s freedom of speech and free exercise of religion.

The decision reads:

“[MTRCB] may disagree with the criticisms of other religions by [INC] but that gives it no excuse to interdict such criticisms, however, unclean they may be…[MTRCB] cannot squelch the speech of petitioner Iglesia ni Cristo simply because it attacks other religions, even if said religion happens to be the most numerous church in our country.”

“Unclean criticisms” of other religion are views that offend religious beliefs. In upholding the INC’s freedom of speech, the Supreme Court ruled against the prohibition of “unclean criticisms” of any religion. Thus, there’s no obligation to not offend other people’s religious beliefs. If there is, then the INC should have lost the case.

On the other hand, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which our country ratified, only allows restriction to freedom of speech that are provided by law and are necessary “for respect of the rights or reputations of others;” and “for the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.”

We have no law prohibiting blasphemous speech. Anti-blasphemy laws are incompatible with the ICCPR. As stressed by Paragraph 48 of General Comment 34 on the ICCPR by the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC), the body tasked to interpret that international treaty: “Prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant…”

Furthermore, the permissible restrictions to freedom of expression, the HRC said, cannot “be used to prevent or punish criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine and tenets of faith.”

One might argue that Duterte’s remark might be contrary to “public morals,” and thus its prohibition is permissible under the ICCPR. Public morals, however, is not equivalent to any religious dogma. As the Supreme Court decision on Leus v. St. Scholastica’s College Westgrove emphasized, “the morality referred to in the law is public and necessarily secular, not religious.” Prohibiting blasphemy is religious and not secular morality.

Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code only prohibits offending religious feelings “in a place devoted to religious worship or during the celebration of any religious ceremony.” Outside those contexts, religious feelings aren’t protected from being offended.

But what to make of Sereno’s support for Villanueva’s position that mocking God can be a violation of the Constitution? Hogwash.

The Constitution doesn’t prohibit mocking any god. What it prohibits is any “religious test…for the exercise of civil or political rights.” That means the exercise of any civil or political right, such as freedom of expression, cannot be restricted by one’s religious belief, renouncement, or even mockery of such beliefs. If your belief is that the god of a particular religion is stupid, that belief isn’t prohibited from being expressed. Doing so would be tantamount to having a religious test for freedom of expression.

The Preamble of the Constitution mentioning “God” cannot be interpreted as the prohibition of non-theistic beliefs or any belief mocking a particular god. In fact, the Constitution even gives the president the choice to take an oath without mentioning “So help me God.”

Now, even if the president takes an oath that mentions God, that doesn’t mean that the Constitution prohibits him to express views against the dogma of any religion. Why? Because that would be tantamount to the State favoring a particular religious belief.

INC v MTRCB is clear: “The establishment clause of freedom of religion prohibits the State from leaning towards any religion.” Blasphemous speech might be prohibited by a religion, but it’s protected speech under the Constitution and our laws, which uphold secular morality, as the Leus v. St. Scholastica emphasized.

If Duterte’s pronouncement that “God is stupid” led to an actual executive directive that would limit the civil or political rights of those who don’t share his religious views, that would be the time he has violated the Constitution. Duterte hasn’t done anything like that. That sets him apart from Philippine Catholic Church’s leader, Bishop Soc Villegas, who advocates that atheists shouldn’t be voted into public office. But just like Duterte, Villegas’ statement is protected speech, but that view cannot be legislated because it would violate the “no religious test clause” of the Constitution.

(Published in The Manila Times on 3 July 2018)

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