The Manila Times : Correcting misconceptions about the separation of church and state

8 March 2022

By Antonio Contreras | The Manila Times

MUCH partisan noise is generated when we see images of politicians being blessed by religious leaders inside churches, or when church leaders openly endorse candidates. Many are complaining about priests delivering homilies where they not only openly promote the candidacy of Vice President Maria Leonor Robredo, but even attack either directly or by reference former senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

A Bicolano priest drew the ire of many Marcos loyalists when he told those who were not voting for Robredo to stop going to church. Robredo loyalists deflected any criticism by referring to the endorsement of Marcos Jr. by other religious groups like El Shaddai and leaders like Apollo Quiboloy to which Marcos loyalists retorted that at least these people did not badmouth Robredo the way some Catholic leaders painted Marcos Jr. in a very bad light.

Repeated reference is given to Article 2, Section 6 of the Constitution, which states that: "The separation of Church and State shall be inviolable."

There is really a need to correct the impression that religious leaders, and the religious groups and organizations in general, are barred from exercising their civil and political rights, including the right to freely express their positions on politics and preferences during elections. Simply said, there is no such thing.

Section 6 of Article 2 should be read in the context of the very basic nature of a constitution as a document that restricts the power of the state vis-à-vis the citizens. Thus, the separation provision is to be construed as a prohibition against the state to intrude into the exercise of religion and not the other way around. This is further given substance in Section 5 of Article 3 or the Bill of Rights, which states that: "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."

Thus, it is clear that it is the state that is prohibited to establish, show preference towards or discriminate against any particular religion. The state cannot also pass any law or policy that would undermine or prevent the religious freedom of anyone. The last sentence is particularly important since it clearly implies that religion cannot be used as a basis to prevent people from exercising their civil and political rights. There is also no provision in the Constitution, or in any law or statute, that prohibits religious leaders from participating in politics and political processes.

This, however, does not prevent the individual churches or religious organizations to have their own internal prohibitions in accordance with their doctrines and teachings. In these cases, it will be an internal matter for these churches and organizations to settle and not for the state with which to meddle. Any perceived transgression or violation would have to be dealt with by their internal procedures and would not be something that secular courts would deal with, considering that there was no law passed by Congress penalizing political activities of religious leaders and groups.

Since having a religion or membership in a church or a religious organization, or loyalty thereof, is not compulsory, individuals who are offended by the political actions of their church or religious leaders always have the right to assert their own opinions, become inactive, or even leave the church or religious organization. This is a risk which is taken by religious leaders when they openly state their political opinions or preferences in the face of divergent opinions from their members. It is also a fact that some groups have more influence over their individual members compared to others.

Our implementation of the separation doctrine remains weakened by our cultural predisposition to privilege religion even in secular affairs. Many government offices retain the practice of having religious rituals such as masses, edifices such as chapels and symbols such as images of saints, or the nativity scene during Christmas. We also have religious holidays. These are things that are not exercised or seen in other countries like the United States.

In the US, while religious organizations are not prohibited from expressing partisan views, they lose their tax-exempt status the moment they do so. US tax laws provide tax exemptions to churches and religious groups as long as they do not engage in partisan political activities. This is something that is not imposed by the Philippine government on religious organizations even if they openly endorse candidates.

If we construe strictly the constitutional prohibition against the state discriminating for or against any particular religion, then there is a need to take another look into state practices that express bias for a particular religion. We have to begin decoupling the state from privileging Christianity as a de facto state religion and truly enshrine in our political culture the ethos of a secular state. Our politicians have to begin consciously suspending their religious biases when they make policy choices.

We should be wary of political leaders who oppose certain policies on religious grounds like Sen. Emmanuel Pacquiao's opposition to same-sex marriages or Robredo's opposition to divorce. While certainly, we cannot stop them from expressing their religious beliefs, they cannot freely discriminate in favor of their faith when they act officially as part of the government. The former is a free exercise of their faith, which is guaranteed by the Constitution, while the latter is amounting to a policy preference that favors their faith, an act that is prohibited by the Constitution.

It should be emphasized: the constitutional prohibition is not against churches and religious groups to express their politics. It is against the state and political leaders to express their religious biases in the performance of their duties as elected and appointed officials of a secular state.