Notoriously offensive

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Who should go to prison for speaking his mind? In the modern democratic project, the answer is clear: No one. The conviction of social activist Carlos Celdran for the obscure crime of “offending the religious feelings,” then, raises many questions. Is the Philippines a modern democracy? Is freedom of speech a living civic virtue? Are religious feelings (not even religious beliefs or articles of faith, but the much more ambiguous notion of religious feelings) sufficient to block political dissent or free expression?

The crime, defined under Article 133 of the eight-decade-old Revised Penal Code (RPC), may be obscure, but it carries a serious penalty. By the count of Judge Juan O. Bermejo Jr. of the Metropolitan Trial Court of Manila, Celdran’s act of disrupting an ecumenical service (not a Mass) inside the Manila Cathedral on Sept. 30, 2010 by brandishing a placard with the name of “Damaso” on it and shouting “You bishops, don’t meddle in politics,” carries a penalty of two months and 21 days “as minimum” to one year, one month and 11 days in prison, as maximum.

This is unduly harsh and, by the Catholic Church’s own precepts, unchristian. It is certainly counterdemocratic.

The RPC, which became law in 1930, contains many antiquated provisions; Article 133 metes jail time to “anyone who, in a place devoted to religious worship or during the celebration of any religious ceremony shall perform acts notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful.”

This is simply wrong, and should be repealed. If religious feelings are notoriously offended, civil, not criminal, penalties should be applied. That is the real argument for Celdran’s freedom.

But in fact, on the merits of the case alone, the judge should have acquitted Celdran, too. The mixed testimony of the four witnesses for the prosecution should have been enough to create reasonable doubt in the judge’s mind.

In the first place, three of the four witnesses for the prosecution all initially thought Celdran’s placard-raising was part of the ecumenical service. One witness told the court she initially wondered whether it “was part of the activity or Bro. [Edgar] Tirona’s props.” (Tirona was reading a Bible passage at the time.) Another witness “wondered if it was part of the ecumenical prayer.” Fr. Oscar Alunday, SVD—in the judge’s reckoning the most credible witness—also first thought the “Damaso” placard was “part of the sharing.”

As it happens, the most important element of the obscure crime of “offending the religious feelings” is the requirement that the act be “notoriously offensive.” Any reasonable person may ask: How can Celdran’s alleged crime be notoriously offensive when three of the four hostile witnesses at first thought it was part of the ceremony?

The very authority the judge cites, Luis B. Reyes’ standard commentary on the RPC, held that “notoriously offensive” acts “must be directed at religious practice or dogma or ritual for the purpose of ridicule”—but not one of the four hostile witnesses testified that the purpose of Celdran’s act was ridicule.

Perhaps in the judge’s estimation, it was Celdran’s shouting that did it. But again, three of the prosecution’s witnesses testified that Celdran shouted only as he was being led away—the same testimony, incidentally, heard from the two witnesses for the defense. It was only the prosecutor’s fourth witness (Alunday again) who said Celdran shouted at the bishops seated inside the church while his placard was raised. Surely this is a major discrepancy in the narration of the facts, and should have a bearing on reasonable doubt. Of the total six witnesses, five said Celdran was waging a silent protest, and began to shout (and, this is an important detail, shouted only once) only when he was being led away.

What should a developing democracy do with Article 133? Consider its context. It is part of Book II of the RPC, under Title Two: “Crimes against the fundamental laws of the State.” In this title’s four chapters and 10 articles, every single crime defined is an act committed by “any public officer or employee”—except for Article 133.

Indeed, the fourth chapter, “Crimes against religious worship,” contains another article, 132, which protects any religious rite from state interference. Article 133 was an anomaly in 1930; it is a worse one today. Celdran’s case should prompt the next Congress to excise it out of the RPC.

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