Wonder Round Table: Lawyers Talk About The Separation of Church and State
We know about the separation of Church and state. But what do the lawyers think?
“The separation of Church and state” is a phrase that’s etched into millions of Filipino minds. I don’t remember when I personally first heard it, but I’m pretty sure it happened in my Catholic school. Funny how they etch that into our minds over the years—and go right ahead and mix the two, anyway.
But maybe us laypeople understand things a little differently. Maybe I’ve been too black and white; maybe we all take it a little too literally. So, here’s what those who actually studied the law have to say:
What does the law say?
According to the lawyers I spoke to, “The 1987 Philippine constitution provides that the separation of Church and State shall be inviolable”—unbreakable, held sacred and firm. To be specific, Article III Section 5 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 don’t know about you, but that seems pretty black and white to me.
Why is it so important?
This one is actually pretty simple. The law declares that there must be a separation of Church and State because one religion cannot be forced on or preferred over the other. In the case of the Philippines, majority of us may be Catholics, but the truth is that there is still a number of Filipinos who are not—and whose religious practices differ greatly. When the State lets religion be a factor in decisions concerning the law, others’ rights are essentially derailed. This could simply be about freedom of speech, but it can be as extreme as any one religion’s practices.
When the State lets religion be a factor in decisions concerning the law, others’ rights are essentially derailed
Another thing I was told that I believe is of great importance: “This separation further allows the State to funnel all its resources to purely secular matters, [such as] education, public transportation and the protection of human rights.”
But do we separate Church and State?
The short answer: yes. The honest answer: Kind of.
I have two strong examples or this—one on the micro and another on the macro level. Let’s start where things are a little more personal.
There’s a specific case I was told about, when a court worker was penalized by her employer for living with a man that she was not married to. The employer pointed out that her religion—Jehovah’s Witness—allowed such living arrangements, and the Supreme Court ruled in her favor. The Supreme Court did its job in stating that the employee was simply exercising her right to practice her religion, of which the State cannot interfere with.
The other example is one we’re all more aware of: the Reproductive Health Bill. As one of the lawyers I spoke to mentioned, “it was a long and hard battle”—one that extended because of religious beliefs. I was told that there was real pressure on congress to deny passing the bill into a law because the religious sector doesn’t believe in the use of contraception. And when it was finally passed, it was derailed further as religious groups filed a case (Imbong v Ochoa) to the Supreme Court. In the end, the Supreme Court struck down provisions, particularly that doctors would not be required to release contraceptives—because it would infringe on their rights to practice their religion.
In the end, the Supreme Court struck down provisions, particularly that doctors would not be required to release contraceptives—because it would infringe on their rights to practice their religion.
But then the religious groups procured a Temporary Restraining Order to stop the Department Of Health from giving free contraceptives to those who willingly wanted them. This lasted two years.
There was one other thing that shocked me from our conversations. Apparently, because the separation of Church and State is so clear in our laws, there should, essentially, be no need to bring the smaller cases to the Supreme Court. The separation of Church and State, I was told, should be upheld on an “on-the-ground” level—by everyday individuals, such as employers, local legislators, policemen.
What we all need to understand, really, is that the law does not dictate religion and religious practices. And that if we insist on our beliefs being mirrored in the law, we are potentially halting anyone else who wants to practice theirs. This goes both ways: What if you were born in a country that generally practiced Islam, of which their laws infringed on your Catholic values?
I think it’s all a matter of privilege and perspective (and the incredibly wrong thinking that my rights are more important than their rights).
Art Matthew Ian Fetalver