Sounding Board

Unfinished debate over the RH law

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A recent article on the Kennedy legacy published in The Tablet, a British Catholic weekly, recalls a speech of John F. Kennedy given before a hostile crowd of Protestant ministers. Kennedy said: “I believe in an America where the separation of Church and State is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the President—should he be Catholic—how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference, and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him, or the people who might elect him.”

The speech, given in the heat of a presidential campaign, was designed to quell fears of a Catholic president. To a large extent it served its purpose as shown by the election of Kennedy as president.

In 2012, another Catholic but Republican candidate, Rick Santorum, would contradict the Democrat Kennedy saying, “I don’t believe in an America where the separation of Church and State is absolute. The idea that the Church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the State is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country … To say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up.”

Political campaign speeches tend to be absolutist in tone and frequently have to be subjected to distinctions in order to arrive at the full truth. Kennedy’s statement, for instance, about the grant of public funds to religious institutions have been nuanced by recent jurisprudence. Government financial aid may now be given to religious institutions provided that the grant (1) is for a secular legislative purpose, (2) must have a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion, and (3) must not require excessive government entanglement with the recipient institution. A number of other decisions have refined this teaching.

As to religious influence on the life of society, we are too aware of the excesses of churchmen, or of efforts to prohibit the reading of the novels of Rizal, or now of efforts of some preachers to exclude from the Church those who favor the RH law or to punish legislators who voted for the RH bill.

The Catholic teaching on this subject may already be found in the “Compendium on the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church,” which says, “Because of its historical and cultural ties to a nation, a religious community might be given special recognition on the part of the State. Such recognition must in no way create discrimination within the civil or social order for other religious groups” and “Those responsible for government are required to interpret the common good of their country not only according to the guidelines of the majority but also according to the effective good of all the members of the community, including the minority.”

During the earlier debates on the RH bill I myself had argued against some provisions of the bill that I thought should be deleted before its approval or should be challenged constitutionally if included in the partial version of the bill. Because of this, I and a number of colleagues offered ways of improving the bill and we published what we called talking points on the bill.

I have studied the final version, the approved law, and I notice that the points that I would have considered constitutionally objectionable have been removed or nuanced. Moreover, the prohibition of abortion has been made more specific.

But the debate on the approved law continues. I am rather disturbed by preachers who use their opposition to the law as a way of defeating electoral candidates who favor or have favored the law. Tactics are being used, which can have the effect of driving Catholics away from the Catholic Church or at least from Sunday Masses where the preachers subject the audience to prolonged attacks on the RH law and to threats of damnation against those who favor the law.

As to the constitutional arguments being used against the law, which are not impressive. The arguments I have seen can be reduced to one sentence:  “The law is unconstitutional because it does not hew closely to the teaching of the Catholic Church on contraception.”

This is a throwback to pre-1908 political society in the Philippines. It forgets what the Compendium teaches: “Those responsible for government  are required to interpret the common good of their country not only according to the guidelines of the majority but also according to the effective good of all the members of the community, including the  minority.” Worse yet, it ignores both the nonestablishment clause and the free exercise clause of the Constitution.

P.S. on an unrelated subject. The Supreme Court is revising the Rules of Civil Procedure and will hold a National Conference on June 28-30, 2013. The deans of our country’s leading law schools and experts in Civil Procedure are already preparing drafts for the new rules. The Office of Justice Roberto A. Abad is open to receiving suggestions from all lawyers (newcivpro@gmail.com).

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