Offending religious feelings

An archaic law dating back to the Spanish colonial era may send Carlos Celdran, artist, activist and a good friend of mine, to jail. 

Carlos made headlines when in the afternoon of Sept. 30, 2010, he went to the Manila Cathedral in a Rizal-like outfit and displayed a white board with the word “DAMASO” written on it in front of a group that included leaders of the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian denominations. It was an ecumenical meeting for the anniversary of the ‘May They be One Campaign,’ and the launch of the ‘Hand Written Bible.’

At first, nobody paid attention to him (a witness in Court even said that he initially thought Carlos’ act was part of the program) until someone called the guards and they brought him out. It was when he was being escorted out that Carlos shouted “Stop meddling in politics!” 

I distinctly remember that earlier that day, I was talking with him on the phone when he told me that he was going to the Manila Cathedral to take photos to be uploaded on Facebook. Carlos is an artist and this could explain what he was wearing and the white board with DAMASO on it. 

I do not think that he had any intention to offend anyone but his being an activist got the better of him when he was being led away. Remember that at that time, the controversial Reproductive Health bill was being heatedly discussed in and out of Congress and the Catholic Church hierarchy and its allies were the biggest opposition to the bill. Carlos Celdran was one of us in the RH advocacy. 

To cut the long story short, Carlos was charged for violating Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code, the “Offending the religious feelings” law. This is an archaic law from the Spanish colonial era which has been carried over to the present RPC. Carlos was convicted by the Metropolitan Trial Court (MTC), the Regional Trial Court (RTC), and the Court of Appeals (CA).

Carlos filed a petition with the Supreme Court questioning the constitutionality of The Offending the Religious Feelings law asserting that this runs counter to the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of expression, as well as the ‘non-establishment’ provision of the Constitution. 

In a very rare instance, the State sided with the accused in this case. The Solicitor General at that time was Florin Hilbay and he propounded the position that Celdran must be acquitted of the crime because the law under which he was accused is violative of the Constitution. In short, the ‘Offending the Religious Feelings’ law needs to be repealed for being unconstitutional.

However, in what appears to be a minute resolution of the Supreme Court’s First Division dated March 21, 2018 and received by Celdran’s legal counsel last Aug. 1, the SC affirmed the Court of Appeals’ guilty verdict against Celdran. He can go to jail for a minimum of two months and twenty-one days to a maximum of one year, one month, and eleven days. 

Curiously, the SC decision, consisting of only five pages (including the list of recipients), did not discuss the merits of the case. All of the lawyers who have read the decision were unanimous in saying that it (the decision), appeared to be a minute, and not a full decision. The constitutionality of Art. 133 has been assailed by both the petitioner (Celdran through his legal counsel), and the office of the Solicitor General. The SC as the final interpreter of the Constitution should have fully discussed the issue and settled the question whether this particular law adheres to the Bill of Rights and the Separation of Church and State provisions  of the present Constitution. 

In a recent tweet, former Solgen Hilbay said, ‘This is an interesting & unfortunate conviction. The official position of the govt is that Celdran should be acquitted. It even gave 3 separate grounds for acquittal to ensure the SC can choose from various reasons to acquit. I know because I was the Solgen who represented the govt.’

Thus, there is more reason for the SC to come up with a full decision on the case. 

The prospects of an advocate (whose only desire is to make life better for Filipino women through the passage of the RH bill then) going to jail because he expressed his frustrations against the Catholic hierarchy is troubling. The Philippines is a democracy, not a theocracy. Governance is supposed to be separate from religion. Freedom of expression is as important as religious freedom. No one should go to jail for expressing one’s position on political issues. 

What’s more troubling is the fact that Carlos, an ordinary citizen, can go to jail for offending the religious feelings of some Catholics while the so many foul-mouthed high ranking officials, especially President Rodrigo Duterte go scot-free despite the fact that they seriously offend millions of Filipinos’ religious feelings and other sensitivities. For me, this is the height of hypocrisy. 

The technicalities of Art. 133 aside, there are many others in government who may be deserving of  jail time than Carlos Celdran. They do much more harm than the expression of frustrations of people like Celdran. 

No one should go to jail for simply offending the religious feelings of some. It is after all 2018, not 1818. Art. 133 is unconstitutional and should be repealed.

Carlos, through his legal counsel will file a Motion for Reconsideration before the SC at 1:00 pm of Aug. 15, 2018. We will be there to support him. This is now beyond Carlos Celdran. This is about our freedom to express ourselves. We invite those who similarly believe to join us. Stand with Carlos Celdran, stand with freedom of expression.

@bethangsioco on Twitter
Elizabeth Angsioco on Facebook

Topics: Elizabeth Angsioco , Offending religious feelings , Carlos Celdran , Manila Cathedral , Catholic Church
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