Carlos Celdran’s jail term is blatantly unconstitutional. For shouting, “You bishops, stop involving yourself in politics,” he was convicted of the circa-1930 crime “offending religious feelings.” The judge never explained how religious dogma, the key to the jail term, was offended. We must decry how a court of law was hijacked as a tool of political persecution under an archaic law.
“Offending religious feelings” can only be committed through an act “notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful.” The crime is so obscure that the Supreme Court has not yet interpreted it. The decision convicting Celdran quotes what we teach in law school: “[An act] must be directed against religious practice or dogma or ritual for the purpose of ridicule.” Professors emphasize that the crime must be “notoriously offensive”—mere rudeness or obnoxiousness does not merit a stay in Bilibid.
What, then, was the religious dogma Celdran notoriously offended?
None whatsoever, based on the decision of Judge Juan Bermejo Jr. of the Manila Metropolitan Trial Court Branch 4. According to Celdran’s accusers, he entered the Manila Cathedral after 3 p.m. on Sept. 30, 2010, during an ecumenical service attended by Catholic bishops and cardinals, leaders from other Christian churches and other VIPs. He dressed in a black suit and bowler hat in homage to national hero Jose Rizal. He walked to the cathedral’s center, silently carrying a placard with the word “Damaso.” While being led out, Celdran shouted, “You bishops, stop involving yourself in politics.” The service resumed after Celdran was led out of the cathedral to face TV crews and his adoring social media public.
Bermejo’s decision did not explain how Celdran offended the narrow legal requirements. Witnesses merely claimed they were deeply offended by Celdran. Christian Monsod’s testimony, a witness who is vice chair of the Bishops-Businessmen’s Conference for Human Development but was not offended, did not raise sufficient doubt. The lack of explanation is exacerbated by how witnesses initially thought Celdran was part of the program, which casts doubt on how “notoriously” offended people were. Further, although it was an ecumenical service, Bermejo did not detail how Celdran “notoriously” offended all the different faiths.
All this violates the constitutional requirement “No decision shall be rendered by any court without expressing therein clearly and distinctly the facts and the law on which it is based.”
This is the most basic requirement of fairness: Tell a man his crime before sending him to jail. I am a lawyer but cannot understand how exactly Celdran committed the crime. I am a professor of constitutional law but cannot understand what to teach regarding the boundary between free speech and crime. Were I Celdran’s counsel, I would not know how to appeal the decision. This is why Judge Bermejo violates due process.
The decision violates two other equally basic legal principles. First, convictions for crimes must hurdle the high bar “beyond reasonable doubt.” Every doubt must be interpreted in the accused’s favor; it is better to let 99 sinners go free than send an innocent man to jail. Note that “notoriously offensive” goes beyond merely interrupting a Mass. Do our criminal laws now turn on witnesses swearing that their religious beliefs were “notoriously” offended? There is clearly reasonable doubt in the facts and law Bermejo presented.
Second, contrary to free speech, Celdran is being jailed for a political message. He screamed separation of church and state in a cathedral; he did not display Jesus’ face with a phallus a la Mideo Cruz or bring lechon into a mosque. Even Padre Damaso is a character from Rizal’s political novel. Had he simply interrupted the service in his bowler hat or even screamed verses from the Koran, he would not be facing jail. This danger of selective enforcement is precisely why the Cybercrime Law is being challenged before the Supreme Court.
The issue is not whether Celdran was crass in interrupting a service in the Manila Cathedral. He is obviously guilty of something. The issue is whether he should be jailed with murderers and rapists based on a decision that does not explain how he committed a crime. We will not teach children they may freely disrupt a Mass, but neither will we teach them that persons they disagree with deserve to go to jail for unstated reasons.
Those opposed to the Reproductive Health Law, the real issue behind this drama, should not rejoice in making Celdran a political martyr. The “Damaso” meme gained so much traction—even with Catholics who would be the first to haul a disruptive person outside a solemn Mass—because it is a one-word encapsulation of anti-RH advocates’ perceived high-handedness. The image of Carlos Celdran behind bars has only been immortalized as a symbol of political bullying in this supposedly modern, enlightened age, alongside the thought of the President being excommunicated.
I call on the President to offer a pardon to Celdran, Congress to repeal the antediluvian “offending religious feelings” crime and the Supreme Court to nullify Judge Bermejo’s deficient decision. Pro- or anti-RH, it must be un-Filipino to jail someone for unstated reasons, based solely on something he said.
If you blacked out your Facebook profile to protest cyberlibel, now is the time to switch to Celdran in his bowler hat.
Oscar Franklin Tan (Twitter @oscarfbtan) teaches constitutional law at the University of the East. Download the deficient decision convicting Celdran at www. facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan.