The hijab case has been simmering for some time.
Many Filipinos may have first heard of it when the news reached national newspapers early this week, but residents of Zamboanga City, where Pilar
College is based, have been wrestling with the issue since the start of the school year.
The college, an institution owned and administered by the Religious of the Virgin Mary, prohibits the use of the hijab or veil by Muslim students, and for the first time some of its Muslim students have contested the policy.
Acting on their complaints, the Zamboanga City Council asked the school on June 27 to explain; on July 9, the college president responded in a letter to the city mayor. “Our origin is Roman Catholic and we cannot deviate from that origin. It is true that we cater to students of different religions, but before they are officially enrolled … rules and regulations are explained to them particularly the non-wearing of the hijab or veil … They [are] deemed to have agreed to the rule if after having been informed of the restriction, they still chose to enrol.” The legal basis for the school restriction? “This is part of academic freedom in connection with which the school has the right to choose whom to teach.”
Is Pilar College in fact within its legal right, under the protective embrace of academic freedom, to prohibit the wearing of the hijab?
US Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, in a famous opinion from 1957, defined academic freedom for all time. “It is the business of a university to provide that atmosphere which is most conducive to speculation, experiment and creation. It is an atmosphere in which there prevail ‘the four essential freedoms’ of a university—to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study.”
Our own Supreme Court decisions have hewed closely to this line of thought; to cite only one out of many rulings upholding academic freedom, the high court asserted in 2001, in University of the Philippines et al. vs Civil Service Commission: “We have held time and again that the University has the academic freedom to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study.”
The National Commission on Muslim Filipinos has since reached out to Pilar College, requesting that it reconsider the prohibition as an encroachment on religious freedom, but even its request is based on the assumption that the school’s action is a valid exercise of academic freedom.
We are not so sure. As the commission itself suggests, it seems that the restriction runs counter to existing laws promoting women’s rights, and even to a Department of Education order specifically allowing the use of veils and headdresses on campus. At the very least, we are mindful that the great constitutional cases involve the clash of competing constitutional rights, and we see in the prohibition a vital, consequential conflict between religious freedom and academic freedom that may potentially only be resolved through Supreme Court action.
But is that what Pilar College wants to happen?
The school is in an enviable, even privileged, position: It is a Catholic college that has attracted the support of Muslim enrollees, in the middle of a mixed Muslim-Christian city that has historically served as a dividing line between Spanish Catholicism and Moro culture. It has the opportunity to help build a vibrantly pluralist community in Zamboanga City, by respecting the rights of minority students while remaining fully committed to its Catholic educational tradition. Above all, it has the potential to teach its students the one virtue generally deemed most crucial to cities of mixed heritage and history: tolerance.
The school can do all this without “deviating” from its Catholic origins; in fact, allowing its Muslim students to wear the hijab—a sign of modesty and piety like the very veils Catholic nuns wear—will only show that Pilar College is living by the Catholic Church’s own rich doctrinal heritage. The “source and synthesis” of the various human rights and civil liberties humanity now enjoys, wrote Pope John Paul II in Centesimus Annus, “is religious freedom, understood as the right to live in the truth of one’s faith and in conformity with one’s transcendent dignity as a person.”
To retain the restriction means Pilar College prioritizes the academic kind of freedom over the religious one.
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