Are bishops above election laws?
The bishop of Bacolod accuses the Commission on Elections of violating his freedoms of speech and religion when it ordered the removal of his 6×10-feet “Team Patay” tarpaulins from the San Sebastian Cathedral facade. These violate the 2×3-feet size limit in the Fair Election Act of 2001, one already reviewed by the Supreme Court in the Adiong case that the bishop cited in his own petition for a temporary restraining order. Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” The good bishop, however, wants both Caesar’s and God’s shares.
Only a bishop can dramatize a human-rights and religious-persecution case out of whether a simple election-poster law may be applied to a privately owned—and tax-exempt—cathedral!
The bishop’s giant tarps have the heading “Conscience Vote.” The lower portion has a large “X” and a list of candidates labeled “(pro-RH) Team Patay”: Juan Edgardo Angara, Teddy Casiño, Alan Peter Cayetano, Jackie Enrile, Francis Escudero, Risa Hontiveros, Loren Legarda. The upper has a large “?” and a list labeled “(anti-RH) Team Buhay.” No one denies that the tarps are anything but partisan politics, and Fr. Melvin Castro, executive secretary of the Episcopal Commission on Family and Life, said “there might even be sample ballots.” No one denies that the tarps are “election propaganda,” defined under Comelec rules as material promoting or opposing a candidate.
The case is bizarre because the Comelec allows the bishop to display whatever election-related messages he wants—so long as he follows poster-size laws. Even Angara reacted, saying: “I would rather allow the Diocese of Bacolod to just do it.” The law’s rationale is obvious: Level the playing field lest a rich campaign cover the country in skyscraper-size posters. It is a “time, manner and place” regulation; it does not censor the bishop.
“Time, manner and place” is the bishops’ best argument to justify imprisoning Carlos Celdran for “offending religious feelings.” It is irrelevant that “Damaso” is a political message, the bishops will argue, and the issue is solely his behavior inside a church. Can one simultaneously argue that Celdran must keep his protests outside churches on pain of a jail term but the Comelec cannot regulate the size of posters on churches?
The bishop is lamentably proposing that the Comelec cannot regulate him because he is a bishop. His lawyers argue that “the election period is only incidental to this [anti-RH] fight.” The heavenly bishop thus ignores the mundane, earthly Comelec, never mind that he is attacking an earthly law by mounting an earthly campaign against earthly candidates.
It is disappointing how the bishop muddled the issue away from a simple poster-size law. Freedom of religion is irrelevant because the Comelec asks heavenly and earthly posters alike to follow the size limit. Similarly, freedom of speech is tangential because the Comelec is regulating every political poster, regardless of the message or speaker. The bishop is hopefully not arguing that the Comelec has no power at all to regulate the size of posters on private property—his logical argument if he denies that bishops deserve special legal treatment!
The free-speech claim rings hollow because whenever bishops are held accountable for speech, they retreat behind religion, unlike ordinary citizens and unlike Jesus’ own concession to give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. It is frustrating to see bishops asked to state their opposition to the Reproductive Health Law in secular terms and see answers superficially change from “it is against God” to “it is against morality.” And when “Team Patay” was met with “Team Tatay,” a list of Bacolod priests who have sired children, the bishop deflected the earthly criticism as “unchristian.”
The great irony is that our bishops have a weak record of respecting the Constitution. They called to ban “blasphemous” artist Mideo Cruz’s exhibit and a lay couple self-righteously vandalized it. The “Pajero bishops” had no qualms about accepting taxpayer money to purchase vehicles. They claim that other people’s exercise of rights under the RH Law violate their right to religion. Various bishops made purely political statements unconnected to the anti-RH stand that allegedly deserves special protection as a religious message. For example, some publicly criticized Chief Justice Renato Corona’s impeachment trial as politically motivated, with one calling for its outright halt.
US President Barack Obama affirmed the religious’ right to free speech beautifully: “Democracy demands that the religiously motivated must translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. Their proposals must be subject to argument and reason.” Or as Hontiveros put it: “If [bishops] wish to engage in partisan politics, they should at the very least have the integrity to admit so.”
I am deeply impressed that Dean Ralph Sarmiento, the young, idealistic leader of La Salle Bacolod’s law school, secured a Supreme Court TRO on the tarps’ removal. I hope, however, that the Supreme Court restricts the issue to whether the Comelec may regulate the use of a privately owned—and tax-free!—church as a political billboard. Recall that both the rights to speech and to property are not absolute. May the mayor of Bacolod stop the good bishop from painting the cathedral neon yellow? May he conduct safety and sanitation inspections there?
As for me, my sense of fair play is so offended that I am voting straight Team Patay.
Oscar Franklin Tan (Twitter @oscarfbtan) teaches constitutional law at the University of the East. Dean Ralph Sarmiento’s TRO petition may be read at www.facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan.