Religious participation in the party-list
The application for accreditation of the party-list group Ang Prolife brings into focus the constitutional and statutory obligations of the Commission on Elections in the matter of registration of religious organizations. In its registration hearing before the Comelec, the group’s president Eric Manalang referred to “OFW families who are the most dysfunctional part of the family structure in the Philippines” as his organization’s target legislative concern. When pressed by the Comelec commissioners for detail, however, he veered away from his rather objectionable sociology and publicly disclosed his group’s actual activities as directed towards an opposition to the reproductive health and divorce bills, same-sex relationships and unions, and the recent concert of Lady Gaga. Important parts of his testimony were recorded by the secularist group Filipino Freethinkers and is readily searchable online.
It is crucial to keep in mind certain principles.
First. The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and the right of the religious to form associations for expressive activities. These are fundamental constitutional rights and are not subject to debate. But the Constitution’s recognition of the right to believe, exercise one’s religion, and organize religious groups does not extend to their accreditation as legislative vehicles such as party-list organizations. Private persons exercising their political liberty can express their religious views in the form of a conservative vote, but cannot form public organizations that can serve as organs of the State for creating laws. To allow religious organizations to become party-list organizations would violate the principle of secularism in Article II of the Constitution. This is because Congress is a secular platform of the State—it is, by constitutional design, an arena of public reason where views are (or at least, should be) open to rational evaluation, deliberation and contestation. A religious party-list in the legislature would violate the non-establishment clause because an accredited party-list organization is no longer just a private community of believers but an officially sanctioned and subsidized group. This is the kind of excessive entanglement between Church and State that the Constitution prohibits. Separating Church from State means prohibiting agents of the Church from becoming agents of the State.
Second. The principle of secularism is implemented in Republic Act 7941 or the Party-list System Act, Section 6 of which provides for the “removal” of a party-list organization if “it is a religious sect or denomination, organization or association organized for religious purposes.” This disqualification is directed against two categories of party-list groups: (1) the out-and-out religious sect, and (2) an association which, though not formally a sect, is organized for religious purposes. In operational terms, however, it is the second category of party-list organization that the Comelec should focus on because the various religious sects as such would never formally seek accreditation. Whether or not a party-list group is organized for religious purposes is a question of fact and the Comelec is not bound by the declarations of an organization.
The language of RA 7941 clearly empowers the Comelec to scrutinize an applicant for accreditation to determine whether a group is organized for religious purposes. This means that it can pierce the veil of formality and go beyond the superficial manifestations of purpose of an organization, look into the real substance of the legislative agenda of the applicant organization, and ask: Is this group organized for a religious purpose? The Comelec may look into: the history of advocacy of the organization in hot button topics for the religious, to ensure that it is not hiding behind a false purpose; the activities of the officers and nominees of the organization, to determine whether there is a clear nexus between the avowed purpose of the organization and the credentials of the officers and nominees; the association of the officers and nominees of the organization with sects and denominations, to determine whether their activities are inextricably intertwined with those of the church or sect they belong to; the source of funding of their past activities, to ascertain if they are simply acting as secular fronts of organized religion. This level of scrutiny is justified not only because of the Constitution and the party-list act, but also because of the jurisprudence created by the Supreme Court in the various party-list cases it has decided.
The importance of a solidly-grounded decision on the part of the Comelec in the registration of Ang Prolife cannot be overemphasized. Its decision sits atop a larger debate in our society that, quite surprisingly, has assumed salience in the 21st century: the functional secularization of the Philippines. While we have always formally recognized secularism as a constitutional norm, it is only now that the debates over some of its particulars—reproductive health, divorce, same-sex marriage, homosexual adoption—have gained traction. Whatever the reason may be, Filipinos have become more open to taking a second look at the dictates of their church and are willing to disregard the teachings of their faith if they disagree. I have no doubt that in the coming months, the subject of their conversations will include the Comelec, regardless of how it decides the case of Ang Prolife.
Florin T. Hilbay is an associate professor in the College of Law, University of the Philippines, and the director of the Institute of Government and Law Reform, UP Law Center.