Philippine Religion Clauses: Nature, Purpose, Tests Based on Philippine and American Religion Clause History, Law and Jurisprudence
The history of the religion clauses in the 1987 Constitution shows that these clauses were largely adopted from the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The religion clauses in the First Amendment were contained in every organic Act of the Philippines under the American regime. When the delegates of the 1934 Constitutional Convention adopted a Bill of Rights in the 1935 Constitution, they purposely retained the phraseology of the religion clauses in the First Amendment as contained in the Jones Law in order to adopt its historical background, nature, extent and limitations. At that time, there were not too many religion clause cases in the United States as the U.S. Supreme Court decided an Establishment Clause issue only in the 1947 Everson case. The Free Exercise Clause cases were also scarce then. Over the years, however, with the expanding reach of government regulation to a whole gamut of human actions and the growing plurality and activities of religions, the number of religion clause cases in the U.S. exponentially increased. With this increase came an expansion of the interpretation of the religion clauses, at times reinforcing prevailing case law, at other times modifying it, and still at other times creating contradictions so that two main streams of jurisprudence had become identifiable. The first stream employs separation while the second employs benevolent neutrality in interpreting the religious clauses. Alongside this change in the landscape of U.S. religion clause jurisprudence, the Philippines continued to adopt the 1935 Constitution religion clauses in the 1973 Constitution and later, the 1987 Constitution. Philippine jurisprudence and commentaries on the religious clauses also continued to borrow authorities from U.S. jurisprudence without articulating the stark distinction between the two streams of U.S. jurisprudence. One might simply conclude that the Philippine Constitutions and jurisprudence also inherited the disarray of U.S. religion clause jurisprudence and the two identifiable streams; thus, when a religion clause case comes before the Court, a separationist approach or a benevolent neutrality approach might be adopted and each will have U.S. authorities to support it. Or, one might conclude that as the history of the First Amendment as narrated by the Court in Everson supports the separationist approach, Philippine jurisprudence should also follow this approach in light of the Philippine religion clauses’ history. As a result, in a case where the party claims religious liberty in the face of a general law that inadvertently burdens his religious exercise, he faces an almost insurmountable wall in convincing the Court that the wall of separation would not be breached if the Court grants him an exemption. These conclusions, however, are not and were never warranted by the 1987, 1973 and 1935 Constitutions as shown by other provisions on religion in all three constitutions. It is a cardinal rule in constitutional construction that the constitution must be interpreted as a whole and apparently conflicting provisions should be reconciled and harmonized in a manner that will give to all of them full force and effect. From this construction, it will be ascertained that the intent of the framers was to adopt a benevolent neutrality approach in interpreting the religious clauses in the Philippine constitutions, and the enforcement of this intent is the goal of construing the constitution.
We first apply the hermeneutical scalpel to dissect the 1935 Constitution. At the same time that the 1935 Constitution provided for an Establishment Clause, it also provided for tax exemption of church property in Article VI, Section 22, par. 3(b), viz:
(3) Cemeteries, churches, and parsonages or convents, appurtenant thereto, and all lands, buildings, and improvements used exclusively for religious, charitable, or educational purposes shall be exempt from taxation.
Before the advent of the 1935 Constitution, Section 344 of the Administrative Code provided for a similar exemption. To the same effect, the Tydings-McDuffie Law contained a limitation on the taxing power of the Philippine government during the Commonwealth period. The original draft of the Constitution placed this provision in an ordinance to be appended to the Constitution because this was among the provisions prescribed by the Tydings-McDuffie Law. However, in order to have a constitutional guarantee for such an exemption even beyond the Commonwealth period, the provision was introduced in the body of the Constitution on the rationale that “if churches, convents [rectories or parsonages] and their accessories are always necessary for facilitating the exercise of such [religious] freedom, it would also be natural that their existence be also guaranteed by exempting them from taxation.” The amendment was readily approved with 83 affirmative votes against 15 negative votes.
The Philippine constitutional provision on tax exemption is not found in the U.S. Constitution. In the U.S. case of Walz, the Court struggled to justify this kind of exemption to withstand Establishment Clause scrutiny by stating that church property was not singled out but was exempt along with property owned by non-profit, quasi-public corporations because the state upheld the secular policy “that considers these groups as beneficial and stabilizing influences in community life and finds this classification useful, desirable, and in the public interest.” The Court also stated that the exemption was meant to relieve the burden on free exercise imposed by property taxation. At the same time, however, the Court acknowledged that the exemption was an exercise ofbenevolent neutrality to accommodate a long-standing tradition of exemption. With the inclusion of the church property tax exemption in the body of the 1935 Constitution and not merely as an ordinance appended to the Constitution, the benevolent neutrality referred to in the Walz case was given constitutional imprimatur under the regime of the 1935 Constitution. The provision, as stated in the deliberations, was an acknowledgment of the necessity of the exempt institutions to the exercise of religious liberty, thereby evincing benevolence towards religious exercise.
Similarly, the 1935 Constitution provides in Article VI, Section 23(3), viz:
(3) No public money, or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, sectarian institution or system of religion, for the use, benefit or support of any priest, preacher, ministers or other religious teacher or dignitary as such, except when such priest, preacher, minister, or dignitary is assigned to the armed forces or to any penal institution, orphanage, or leprosarium. (emphasis supplied)
The original draft of this provision was a reproduction of a portion of section 3 of the Jones Law which did not contain the above exception, viz:
No public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church denomination, sectarian institution, or system of religion, or for the use, benefit or support of any priest, preacher, minister, or dignitary as such…
In the deliberations of this draft provision, an amendment was proposed to strike down everything after “church denomination.” The proposal intended to imitate the silence of the U.S. Constitution on the subject of support for priests and ministers. It was also an imitation of the silence of the Malolos Constitution to restore the situation under the Malolos Constitution and prior to the Jones Law, when chaplains of the revolutionary army received pay from public funds with no doubt about its legality. It was pointed out, however, that even with the prohibition under the Jones Law, appropriations were made to chaplains of the national penitentiary and the Auditor General upheld its validity on the basis of a similar United States practice. But it was also pointed out that the U.S. Constitution did not contain a prohibition on appropriations similar to the Jones Law. To settle the question on the constitutionality of payment of salaries of religious officers in certain government institutions and to avoid the feared situation where the enumerated government institutions could not employ religious officials with compensation, the exception in the 1935 provision was introduced and approved. The provision garnered 74 affirmative votes against 34 negative votes. As pointed out in the deliberations, the U.S. Constitution does not provide for this exemption. However, the U.S. Supreme Court in Cruz v. Beto, apparently taking a benevolent neutrality approach, implicitly approved the state of Texas’ payment of prison chaplains’ salaries as reasonably necessary to permit inmates to practice their religion. Also, in the Marsh case, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the long-standing tradition of beginning legislative sessions with prayers offered by legislative chaplains retained at taxpayers’ expense. The constitutional provision exempting religious officers in government institutions affirms the departure of the Philippine Constitution from the U.S. Constitution in its adoption of benevolent neutrality in Philippine jurisdiction. While the provision prohibiting aid to religion protects the wall of separation between church and state, the provision at the same time gives constitutional sanction to a breach in the wall.
To further buttress the thesis that benevolent neutrality is contemplated in the Philippine Establishment Clause, the 1935 Constitution provides for optional religious instruction in public schools in Article XIII, Section 5, viz:
. . . Optional religious instruction shall be maintained in the public schools as now authorized by law. . .
The law then applicable was Section 928 of the Administrative Code, viz:
It shall be lawful, however, for the priest or minister of any church established in the town where a public school is situated, either in person or by a designated teacher of religion, to teach religion for one-half hour three times a week, in the school building, to those public-school pupils whose parents or guardians desire it and express their desire therefor in writing filed with the principal of the school . . .
During the debates of the Constitutional Convention, there were three positions on the issue of religious instruction in public schools. The first held that the teaching of religion in public schools should be prohibited as this was a violation of the principle of separation of church and state and the prohibition against the use of public funds for religious purposes. The second favored the proposed optional religious instruction as authorized by the Administrative Code and recognized that the actual practice of allowing religious instruction in the public schools was sufficient proof that religious instruction was not and would not be a source of religious discord in the schools. The third wanted religion to be included as a course in the curriculum of the public schools but would only be taken by pupils at the option of their parents or guardians. After several rounds of debate, the second camp prevailed, thus raising to constitutional stature the optional teaching of religion in public schools, despite the opposition to the provision on the ground of separation of church and state. As in the provisions on church property tax exemption and compensation of religious officers in government institutions, the U.S. Constitution does not provide for optional religious instruction in public schools. In fact, in the McCollum case, the Court, using strict neutrality, prohibited this kind of religious instruction where the religion teachers would conduct class within the school premises. The constitutional provision on optional religious instruction shows that Philippine jurisdiction rejects the strict neutrality approach which does not allow such accommodation of religion.
Finally, to make certain the Constitution’s benevolence to religion, the Filipino people “implored (ing) the aid of Divine Providence (,) in order to establish a government that shall embody their ideals, conserve and develop the patrimony of the nation, promote the general welfare, and secure to themselves and their posterity the blessings of independence under a regime of justice, liberty, and democracy, (in) ordain(ing) and promulgat(ing) this Constitution.” A preamble is a “key to open the mind of the authors of the constitution as to the evil sought to be prevented and the objects sought to be accomplished by the provisions thereof.” There was no debate on the inclusion of a “Divine Providence” in the preamble. In Aglipay, Justice Laurel noted that when the Filipino people implored the aid of Divine Providence, “(t)hey thereby manifested their intense religious nature and placed unfaltering reliance upon Him who guides the destinies of men and nations.” The 1935 Constitution’s religion clauses, understood alongside the other provisions on religion in the Constitution, indubitably shows not hostility, but benevolence, to religion.
The 1973 Constitution contained in Article VI, Section 22(3) a provision similar to Article VI, Section 22, par. 3(b) of the 1935 Constitution on exemption of church property from taxation, with the modification that the property should not only be used directly, but also actually and exclusively for religious or charitable purposes. Parallel to Article VI, Section 23(3) of the 1935 Constitution, the 1973 Constitution also contained a similar provision on salaries of religious officials employed in the enumerated government institutions. Article XIII, Section 5 of the 1935 Constitution on optional religious instruction was also carried to the 1973 Constitution in Article XV, Section 8(8) with the modification that optional religious instruction shall be conducted “as may be provided by law” and not “as now authorized by law” as stated in the 1935 Constitution. The 1973 counterpart, however, made explicit in the constitution that the religious instruction in public elementary and high schools shall be done “(a)t the option expressed in writing by the parents or guardians, and without cost to them and the government.” With the adoption of these provisions in the 1973 Constitution, the benevolent neutrality approach continued to enjoy constitutional sanction. In Article XV, Section 15 of the General Provisions of the 1973 Constitution this provision made its maiden appearance: “(t)he separation of church and state shall be inviolable.” The 1973 Constitution retained the portion of the preamble “imploring the aid of Divine Providence.”
In the Report of the Ad Hoc Sub-Committee on Goals, Principles and Problems of the Committee on Church and State of the 1971 Constitutional Convention, the question arose as to whether the “absolute” separation of Church and State as enunciated in the Everson case and reiterated in Schempp – i.e., neutrality not only as between one religion and another but even as between religion and non-religion – is embodied in the Philippine Constitution. The sub-committee’s answer was that it did not seem so. Citing the Aglipay case where Justice Laurel recognized the “elevating influence of religion in human society” and the Filipinos’ imploring of Divine Providence in the 1935 Constitution, the sub-committee asserted that the state may not prefer or aid one religion over another, but may aid all religions equally or the cause of religion in general. Among the position papers submitted to the Committee on Church on State was a background paper for reconsideration of the religion provisions of the constitution by Fr. Bernas, S.J. He stated therein that the Philippine Constitution is not hostile to religion and in fact recognizes the value of religion and accommodates religious values. Stated otherwise, the Establishment Clause contemplates not a strict neutrality but benevolent neutrality. While the Committee introduced the provision on separation of church and state in the General Provisions of the 1973 Constitution, this was nothing new as according to it, this principle was implied in the 1935 Constitution even in the absence of a similar provision.
Then came the 1987 Constitution. The 1973 Constitutional provision on tax exemption of church property was retained with minor modification in Article VI, Section 28(3) of the 1987 Constitution. The same is true with respect to the prohibition on the use of public money and property for religious purposes and the salaries of religious officers serving in the enumerated government institutions, now contained in Article VI, Section 29(2). Commissioner Bacani, however, probed into the possibility of allowing the government to spend public money for purposes which might have religious connections but which would benefit the public generally. Citing the Aglipay case, Commissioner Rodrigo explained that if a public expenditure would benefit the government directly, such expense would be constitutional even if it results to an incidental benefit to religion. With that explanation, Commissioner Bacani no longer pursued his proposal.
The provision on optional religious instruction was also adopted in the 1987 Constitution in Article XIV, Section 3(3) with the modification that it was expressly provided that optional instruction shall be conducted “within the regular class hours” and “without additional cost to the government”. There were protracted debates on what additional cost meant, i.e., cost over and above what is needed for normal operations such as wear and tear, electricity, janitorial services, and when during the day instruction would be conducted. In deliberating on the phrase “within the regular class hours,” Commissioner Aquino expressed her reservations to this proposal as this would violate the time-honored principle of separation of church and state. She cited the McCullom casewhere religious instruction during regular school hours was stricken down as unconstitutional and also cited what she considered the most liberal interpretation of separation of church and state inSurach v. Clauson where the U.S. Supreme Court allowed only release time for religious instruction. Fr. Bernas replied, viz:
. . . the whole purpose of the provision was to provide for an exception to the rule on non-establishment of religion, because if it were not necessary to make this exception for purposes of allowing religious instruction, then we could just drop the amendment. But, as a matter of fact, this is necessary because we are trying to introduce something here which is contrary to American practices. (emphasis supplied)
“(W)ithin regular class hours” was approved.
The provision on the separation of church and state was retained but placed under the Principles in the Declaration of Principles and State Policies in Article II, Section 6. In opting to retain the wording of the provision, Fr. Bernas stated, viz:
. . . It is true, I maintain, that as a legal statement the sentence ‘The separation of Church and State is inviolable,’ is almost a useless statement; but at the same time it is a harmless statement. Hence, I am willing to tolerate it there, because, in the end, if we look at the jurisprudence on Church and State, arguments are based not on the statement of separation of church and state but on the non-establishment clause in the Bill of Rights.
The preamble changed “Divine Providence” in the 1935 and 1973 Constitutions to “Almighty God.” There was considerable debate on whether to use “Almighty God” which Commissioner Bacani said was more reflective of Filipino religiosity, but Commissioner Rodrigo recalled that a number of atheistic delegates in the 1971 Constitutional Convention objected to reference to a personal God. “God of History”, “Lord of History” and “God” were also proposed, but the phrase “Almighty God” prevailed. Similar to the 1935 and 1971 Constitutions, it is obvious that the 1987 Constitution is not hostile nor indifferent to religion; its wall of separation is not a wall of hostility or indifference.
The provisions of the 1935, 1973 and 1987 constitutions on tax exemption of church property, salary of religious officers in government institutions, optional religious instruction and the preamble all reveal without doubt that the Filipino people, in adopting these constitutions, did not intend to erect a high and impregnable wall of separation between the church and state. The strict neutrality approach which examines only whether government action is for a secular purpose and does not consider inadvertent burden on religious exercise protects such a rigid barrier. By adopting the above constitutional provisions on religion, the Filipinos manifested their adherence to the benevolent neutrality approach in interpreting the religion clauses, an approach that looks further than the secular purposes of government action and examines the effect of these actions on religious exercise. Benevolent neutrality recognizes the religious nature of the Filipino people and the elevating influence of religion in society; at the same time, it acknowledges that government must pursue its secular goals. In pursuing these goals, however, government might adopt laws or actions of general applicability which inadvertently burden religious exercise. Benevolent neutrality gives room for accommodation of these religious exercises as required by the Free Exercise Clause. It allows these breaches in the wall of separation to uphold religious liberty, which after all is the integral purpose of the religion clauses. The case at bar involves this first type of accommodation where an exemption is sought from a law of general applicability that inadvertently burdens religious exercise.
Although our constitutional history and interpretation mandate benevolent neutrality, benevolent neutrality does not mean that the Court ought to grant exemptions every time a free exercise claim comes before it. But it does mean that the Court will not look with hostility or act indifferently towards religious beliefs and practices and that it will strive to accommodate them when it can within flexible constitutional limits; it does mean that the Court will not simply dismiss a claim under the Free Exercise Clause because the conduct in question offends a law or the orthodox view for this precisely is the protection afforded by the religion clauses of the Constitution, i.e., that in the absence of legislation granting exemption from a law of general applicability, the Court can carve out an exception when the religion clauses justify it. While the Court cannot adopt a doctrinal formulation that can eliminate the difficult questions of judgment in determining the degree of burden on religious practice or importance of the state interest or the sufficiency of the means adopted by the state to pursue its interest, the Court can set a doctrine on the ideal towards which religious clause jurisprudence should be directed. We here lay down the doctrine that in Philippine jurisdiction, we adopt the benevolent neutrality approach not only because of its merits as discussed above, but more importantly, because our constitutional history and interpretation indubitably show that benevolent neutrality is the launching pad from which the Court should take off in interpreting religion clause cases. The ideal towards which this approach is directed is the protection of religious liberty “not only for a minority, however small- not only for a majority, however large- but for each of us” to the greatest extent possible within flexible constitutional limits.
Benevolent neutrality is manifest not only in the Constitution but has also been recognized in Philippine jurisprudence, albeit not expressly called “benevolent neutrality” or “accommodation”. In Aglipay, the Court not only stressed the “elevating influence of religion in human society” but acknowledged the Constitutional provisions on exemption from tax of church property, salary of religious officers in government institutions, and optional religious instruction as well as the provisions of the Administrative Code making Thursday and Friday of the Holy Week, Christmas Day and Sundays legal holidays. In Garces, the Court not only recognized the Constitutional provisions indiscriminately granting concessions to religious sects and denominations, but also acknowledged that government participation in long-standing traditions which have acquired a social character – “the barrio fiesta is a socio-religious affair” – does not offend the Establishment Clause. In Victoriano, the Court upheld the exemption from closed shop provisions of members of religious sects who prohibited their members from joining unions upon the justification that the exemption was not a violation of the Establishment Clause but was only meant to relieve the burden on free exercise of religion. In Ebralinag, members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses were exempt from saluting the flag as required by law, on the basis not of a statute granting exemption but of the Free Exercise Clause without offending the Establishment Clause.
While the U.S. and Philippine religion clauses are similar in form and origin, Philippine constitutional law has departed from the U.S. jurisprudence of employing a separationist or strict neutrality approach. The Philippine religion clauses have taken a life of their own, breathing the air of benevolent neutrality and accommodation. Thus, the wall of separation in Philippine jurisdiction is not as high and impregnable as the wall created by the U.S. Supreme Court in Everson. While the religion clauses are a unique American experiment which understandably came about as a result of America’s English background and colonization, the life that these clauses have taken in this jurisdiction is the Philippines’ own experiment, reflective of the Filipinos’ own national soul, history and tradition. After all, “the life of the law. . . has been experience.”
But while history, constitutional construction, and earlier jurisprudence unmistakably show that benevolent neutrality is the lens with which the Court ought to view religion clause cases, it must be stressed that the interest of the state should also be afforded utmost protection. To do this, a test must be applied to draw the line between permissible and forbidden religious exercise. It is quite paradoxical that in order for the members of a society to exercise their freedoms, including their religious liberty, the law must set a limit when their exercise offends the higher interest of the state. To do otherwise is self-defeating for unlimited freedom would erode order in the state and foment anarchy, eventually destroying the very state its members established to protect their freedoms. The very purpose of the social contract by which people establish the state is for the state to protect their liberties; for this purpose, they give up a portion of these freedoms – including the natural right to free exercise – to the state. It was certainly not the intention of the authors of the constitution that free exercise could be used to countenance actions that would undo the constitutional order that guarantees free exercise.
The all important question then is the test that should be used in ascertaining the limits of the exercise of religious freedom. Philippine jurisprudence articulates several tests to determine these limits. Beginning with the first case on the Free Exercise Clause, American Bible Society, the Court mentioned the “clear and present danger” test but did not employ it. Nevertheless, this test continued to be cited in subsequent cases on religious liberty. The Gerona case then pronounced that the test of permissibility of religious freedom is whether it violates the established institutions of society and law. The Victoriano case mentioned the “immediate and grave danger” test as well as the doctrine that a law of general applicability may burden religious exercise provided the law is the least restrictive means to accomplish the goal of the law. The case also used, albeit inappropriately, the “compelling state interest” test. After Victoriano, German went back to the Gerona rule. Ebralinag then employed the “grave and immediate danger” test and overruled the Gerona test. The fairly recent case of Iglesia ni Cristo went back to the “clear and present danger” test in the maiden case of American Bible Society. Not surprisingly, all the cases which employed the “clear and present danger” or “grave and immediate danger” test involved, in one form or another, religious speech as this test is often used in cases on freedom of expression. On the other hand, the Gerona and German cases set the rule that religious freedom will not prevail over established institutions of society and law. Gerona, however, which was the authority cited by German has been overruled by Ebralinag which employed the “grave and immediate danger” test. Victoriano was the only case that employed the “compelling state interest” test, but as explained previously, the use of the test was inappropriate to the facts of the case.
The case at bar does not involve speech as in American Bible Society, Ebralinag and Iglesia ni Cristo where the “clear and present danger” and “grave and immediate danger” tests were appropriate as speech has easily discernible or immediate effects. The Gerona and German doctrine, aside from having been overruled, is not congruent with the benevolent neutralityapproach, thus not appropriate in this jurisdiction. Similar to Victoriano, the present case involves purely conduct arising from religious belief. The “compelling state interest” test is proper where conduct is involved for the whole gamut of human conduct has different effects on the state’s interests: some effects may be immediate and short-term while others delayed and far-reaching. A test that would protect the interests of the state in preventing a substantive evil, whether immediate or delayed, is therefore necessary. However, not any interest of the state would suffice to prevail over the right to religious freedom as this is a fundamental right that enjoys a preferred position in the hierarchy of rights – “the most inalienable and sacred of all human rights”, in the words of Jefferson. This right is sacred for an invocation of the Free Exercise Clause is an appeal to a higher sovereignty. The entire constitutional order of limited government is premised upon an acknowledgment of such higher sovereignty, thus the Filipinos implore the “aid of Almighty God in order to build a just and humane society and establish a government.” As held in Sherbert, only the gravest abuses, endangering paramount interests can limit this fundamental right. A mere balancing of interests which balances a right with just a colorable state interest is therefore not appropriate. Instead, only a compelling interest of the state can prevail over the fundamental right to religious liberty. The test requires the state to carry a heavy burden, a compelling one, for to do otherwise would allow the state to batter religion, especially the less powerful ones until they are destroyed. In determining which shall prevail between the state’s interest and religious liberty, reasonableness shall be the guide. The “compelling state interest” serves the purpose of revering religious liberty while at the same time affording protection to the paramount interests of the state. This was the test used in Sherbert which involved conduct, i.e. refusal to work on Saturdays. In the end, the “compelling state interest” test, by upholding the paramount interests of the state, seeks to protect the very state, without which, religious liberty will not be preserved.