No Place for God

Once upon a time, people attributed a great many things to gods in general, and God in particular. Be it good or bad, life events can be seen as a blessing from on high, or a curse upon the wicked. Bountiful harvests and victory in war were blessings while severe droughts, destructive storms, illness and other afflictions were judgments of the gods against those who offended them.

Over time, the influence of the gods over our fate and the lives of men waned. Today, being an atheist is a thing. We have sidelined our gods with knowledge of nature and sciences. We are now the gods. We have no need for supernatural beings.

One by-product of this change is that certain laws still reflected the old beliefs. Old oaths called out to God — one Nation under God; so help me God — but the people are no longer the Christians of old. Most Christians these days call themselves Christians but rarely practice it, or limit it to the general events: Christmas and, if the Church is lucky, Easter. Otherwise, it is practically a forgotten religion.

Of course, there are exceptions. Christianity is on the rise in Africa, while Islam appears to be going strong despite the war within itself between Sunnis and Shias.

In the Philippines, we once proclaimed ourselves the sole Catholic nation in Asia but how many of us now follow its traditions and teachings? I still remember the days when Holy Week was truly holy. Other than for religious ceremonies, no other activities were allowed. Today, it’s nothing more than a long holiday.

Then Mr. Carlos Celdran passed away. He was an advocate of that Reproductive Health Act that, as expected, was opposed by the Church, and despite the conditions described above, it had a hard time passing Congress.

Mr. Celdran stepped into a church while mass was being celebrated with a sign that said “Damaso” — a reference to a hated character, a Spanish friar, in Jose Rizal’s novel Noli Me Tangere (“Touch Me Not”) — and when accosted shouted (that the Church) should not meddle in politics. He was brought to the police and charged with Offending Religious Feelings that is penalized under Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code.

There are those who think that the particular provision should be repealed because it was allegedly archaic. How could it be when it came with all the other provisions that penalized Rape, Murder and Estafa (swindling)? One cannot be archaic without the others. So, are we to repeal the laws against all the other crimes as well for being just as archaic?

Or is it their argument that only Art. 133 was archaic because it still focused on religion when religion is already passe? I cannot agree.

In the first place, we have given the people the right to freely exercise one’s religion (Article III, Section 5, 1987 Constitution). In so doing, it makes perfect sense to protect them while doing so.

Article 133 reads:

“The penalty of arresto mayor in its maximum period to prision correcional in its minimum period shall be imposed upon anyone who, in a place devoted to religious worship or during the celebration of any religious ceremony shall perform acts notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful (emphasis added).”

Note that this is not an all-encompassing anti-blasphemy law. Rather, it is very limited in application: it has to happen in a place of worship (not limited to a church, mind you), or during the celebration of a religious ceremony, like a mass being held in a church, which is precisely where Mr. Celdran was when he made his “protest” that, unfortunately for him, offended the feelings of the faithful. Note, further, that it is not the Church or religion that is being protected but the religious feelings of the faithful. Again, this appears consistent with the provision of the Constitution.

Note, finally, that had he simply stood outside the cathedral with his sign, he probably would have escaped prosecution. As things turned out, however, he found himself inside and the rest as they say is history. He was convicted and the ruling was upheld by the appellate court and by the Supreme Court. Rather than being incarcerated, he went into exile in Madrid, Spain, and after a few years, passed away.

Should the Court have nullified Art. 133? I, for one, am glad that they did not. Again, it seeks to protect the feelings of men of all religious leanings and no particular faith that is consistent with the rights granted under the Constitution. Should the Court have made an exception because it was Mr. Celdran? What would that make of the principle of equal protection of the law? Is it wise to repeal the law for being archaic? Why should we when there are still men of faith that deserve to be protected from the bigotry of others? Again, 133 is of limited scope. It does not cover instances done outside a place of worship, or before or after the celebration of a religious ceremony. You can write an article attacking the idiocy of men who believe in a supernatural being without material proof of its existence, or how that belief is detrimental to society, and you will not be prosecuted under this law. Again, it is the misfortune of Mr. Celdran that he satisfied all the requisites for the commission of the crime of Offending Religious Feelings.

Does the law contravene the right of Mr. Celdran to free speech and expression? I will not be the first, and hardly will be the last, to say that the right to free speech and expression is never absolute. Again, 133 is not all-encompassing. You have to be within the four corners of the law to be convicted. Mr. Celdran was squarely inside those corners. Had he bothered to step out, he would be a free man.

As a lawyer, I believe that one should not argue that the law should be repealed simply because it is archaic. Again, what makes this law archaic when it comes with other provisions penalizing other crimes? Why single out Article 133? Then what about the Negotiable Instruments Law and all those we haven’t amended all these years? Should we repeal them as well? I do not think anyone would want to; so, please, either prove that it is unconstitutional or itself contrary to law, or respect the same even if a majority of today’s people are not as religious as others. We could say the same thing before anyway. I think we can be quite sure not everyone was as religious as the others even in the past. We wouldn’t have Noli Me Tangere otherwise.

One final note: when Mr. Celdran died, his criminal liability was extinguished. That is a principle maintained under the same law that penalized him, the Revised Penal Code. Can we then argue that the principle is also archaic and, therefore, he is still guilty even after death? Let us not take this thing too far, which is the whole point of this article anyway. For him, the argument is over. I may not agree with him or with his politics but, sincerely, Rest In Peace, Mr. Celdran.

At least he gets to know ahead of us if religious beliefs are something we really should bother with or not. Until then, however, I would rather err on the side of caution.