By Raïssa Robles
The crime of “offending religious feelings” – for which Carlos Celdran was convicted is unconstitutional – believes Ibarra Gutierrez III, a criminal law professor at the University of the Philippines.
“I don’t think it’s constitutional,” he told me in an interview.
Gutierrez gave several reasons.
“First of all, it is strangely placed. It appears in one chapter of the Revised Penal Code – under “Crimes Against the Fundamental Laws of the State. Look at the other crimes (under this section). They all refer to a situation where a government official violates the Bill of Rights such as arbitrary detention, illegal search and seizure.
At the very last (of the same section), you have a crime that does not punish a government official who commits crimes against the Bill of Rights but a crime that offends religious feelings.
I looked and indeed the provision was strangely placed, tacked on like an afterthought.
The Bill of Rights does mention religion but only with respect to a person’s right to freely exercise it.
Prof. Gutierrez also expressed the belief that the State
“has no business prosecuting crimes anchoring on religious feelings. The problem is, it calls upon the court to make a determination of what the religious faithful will find offensive…what will ridicule the church.”
He said this would mean that the court would have to make a judgment in relation to doctrines of a particular church.
Third, he called the crime “archaic” and a throwback to the Spanish colonial period when the native population in the Philippines was ruled by a theocracy and Church and State were one.
To non-lawyers like me, the name “Revised Penal Code” was highly misleading since it initially gave me the impression the revision was recent. It turns out our Code of Crimes was last revised back in 1930 yet. It replaced the previous Spanish Penal Code but apparently carried over quite a number of the latter’s provisions.
I asked Prof. Gutierrez to recall previous cases where the court ruled that religious feelings were offended.
He said one case was penned by the late Justice Jose P. Laurel before World War II. It involved a man who had a non-Catholic buried with Catholic rites in a Catholic cemetery.
Another more recent case involved a man who – during a religious rally of the Iglesia ni Cristo, had climbed the stage and started debating with the church minister. In that case, he said, the lower court convicted the man. But on appeal, he was acquitted because the judge ruled that a religious rally held in a public plaza is not a religious ceremony, he explained.
So I guess Prof. Gutierrez has just answered a question I had posed earlier – if the Catholic Church chooses to have an outdoor religious ceremony-cum-rally against the reproductive health law, can those who might hold counter-rallies in the vicinity be held liable for offending religious feelings?
Gutierrez added that even if the Church holds a mass during a public rally, the gathering cannot be considered a “religious ceremony” defined under Section 133. “Not even if you do something offensive,” he said.
Still another case of initial conviction involved a drunken man who had entered a church while singing was going on during a service and who tried to grab the mike. The Court of Appeals reversed his initial conviction and said he was not guilty of offending religious feelings because his intention was not to ridicule the church beliefs. He was just drunk .
In the case of Carlos Celdran, Gutierrez said:
“I would assume, the decision (of the judge) zeroed in more on his action – the mode he had adopted to get his particular message across, the fact that he had disrupted a mass – more than on his purpose.”
Celdran said he will appeal his case. He had earlier apologized for disrupting an ecumenical service inside the Manila Cathedral two years ago by holding up a sign with the word “Damaso” on it and yelling at senior Catholic clerics to stop meddling in politics by trying to block the passage of a reproductive health law.
I guess Celdran had also touched a sensitive spot. The Church would rather forget the oppressive role it played during the Spanish colonial period, which national hero Dr. Jose Rizal had satirized in the two novels that the Church also tried to ban from being read in schools. Celdran twisted the knife in by dressing up like Rizal on the day he was executed for crimes against the State and the Church.
The one-man protest landed Celdran briefly in jail, which he cut short by posting bail.
Celdran then said:
“I really am sorry for the method but I hope you heard my message loud and clear. My message is unapologetic. But for interrupting the mass and ruining your day, sorry about that.”
Gutierrez noted that theoretically, Celdran can post bail despite his conviction, “while he is appealing the case.”