On kicking God out of government

is the topic of my Trade Tripper column in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

One of the more contentious, emotionally charged, albeit mostly misunderstood, provisions of the Constitution is that on the separation of Church and State. This has been employed to bolstering arguments from advocating for the RH Bill and government support of contraceptive use, to silencing critics with regard to any human rights abuses. The line of thinking seems to be that with regard to anything that involves government or national policy, religion should not be allowed into the equation. Nothing, however, could be more wrong.

Article III, Section 5 of the Constitution 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." This proceeds from the principles declared in Article II, Section 6 which declares that "The separation of Church and State shall be inviolable." Read the two provisions carefully. There is nothing there that says citizens (including government officials) shouldn’t be guided by the tenets of their faith. The Constitution, rather than discouraging religions, actually supports religions by mandating tolerance for all religions. Hence the prohibition on discriminatory treatment against or preference for any single religion. One reason the RH Bill is offensive is that it forces Catholics to support (through the duty to pay taxes) something that they believe is immoral. Note that there is no law banning the private use of contraceptives.

Indeed, contrary to what most people think, religion (and the role that God has in governmental affairs) strongly runs through the vein of the Constitution and the operation of our Republic. While focus is on Articles II and III of the Constitution, it must also be remembered that the very first sentence of our Constitution actually contains a fervent appeal to our Creator: "We, the sovereign Filipino people, imploring the aid of Almighty God ..." The Constitution goes on to enumerate instances of adherence to natural law: from "truth," the proscription against aggressive war, the preservation of the family, to taking care of the environment.

The Constitution’s reliance on natural law is most strongly seen in the Bill of Rights. Contrary to popular belief, the rights contained therein are not given by the Constitution. Those rights (e.g., to life, liberty, and property, etc.) exist independent of the Constitution because such are considered inalienable and inherent ("natural") to man. There are instances perhaps when State interests may require the temporary modification or suspension of such rights. The Bill of Rights merely serves as a limitation or framework within which that modification or suspension could be made.Now one of those rights considered inalienable and inherent (including those enumerated above) is the freedom to exercise one’s religion.

One component of that freedom to exercise one’s religion is the "right to proselytize" (American Bible Society vs. Manila), meaning that one has the right to advocate one’s religious views or disseminate information regarding the same. The Constitution also bars the government from interfering in the conduct of purely religious affairs. Thus, in Austria vs. NLRC, the Supreme Court stated that the government cannot intervene in matters relating to the "administration of sacraments" (such as the refusal to give communion). Nevertheless, in order to ensure religious tolerance and the peaceful exercise of one’s religion, Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code punishes acts of blasphemy or those offensive to the feelings of the faithful (such as offering condoms to priests during Mass).

Are government officials required to do away with their religion while in government service? Of course not. From the very first day of their service, our laws recognize that public officials, elected or appointed, could indeed adhere to their religious beliefs while working in government. The president of our Republic, for example, upon taking his oath of office asks for the help of God in the fulfillment of his duties. This plea for divine help is contained in the oaths of practically all government officials (including private citizens in the performance of public functions, such as testifying in court). The Supreme Court, in Estrada vs. Escritor, even went to the extent of recognizing that people stand "accountable to an authority higher than the State."

So religion does play a part in public affairs. To deny that is to make people schizophrenic: allowing them to be sincere believers in church or in the mosque and then demanding they ignore their beliefs while in government or during public discussions. That’s silly and irrational. In A Man For All Seasons, Thomas More was made to say that "when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties they lead their country by a short route to chaos." For Catholics, it must be remembered, consciences should be guided by the Bible, Holy Tradition, and the Church.