When policemen distribute Bibles
On Jan. 20, Jhieriel Rosario posted photos of policemen distributing copies of the Bible to commuters. At first, Rosario found it strange. A policeman, along with someone who was not in uniform, was stopping cars and even jeepneys. He thought it was against the law for civilians to operate checkpoints.
When the policeman gave him a New Testament Bible from Gideons International, Rosario was pleasantly surprised. He praised the men who were distributing Bibles despite the afternoon heat, and shared the good news on Facebook.
At this writing, his post had been shared over 24,000 times and had received over 96,000 comments. Most of the comments were like Rosario’s: in praise of the men for their good deed, calling the act a breath of fresh air amid all the bad news usually associated with the police.
But some of the comments were critical. Wasn’t what the men were doing a violation of the separation of church and state? Why didn’t they do it in their private time? How would everyone react if copies of the Koran were distributed instead? Did their superiors know and approve of their act?
I’ll answer these questions in reverse.
I don’t know whether the men had official permission from the Philippine National Police leadership. But if the PNP authorities didn’t know about the issue before, they certainly know about it now. In case the original post did not reach them, I think it’s safe to assume that they follow their own Facebook page, which shared the post the following morning thus: “One PNP good deed this morning.”
If I had to, I’d guess that the men’s superiors didn’t mind their initiative, especially since it resulted in some good publicity.
But what if copies of the Koran were distributed instead? I think it’s fair to assume that a lot of commuters (and commenters) wouldn’t be as pleased. They’d ask the same questions that critics had been asking: Since when have the police been in the business of proselytizing? Why would the police risk delaying traffic to offer commuters a book that they might not want?
I’m sure a lot of commuters and commenters would not mind receiving a Koran—a gift that is arguably more useful to many, as presumably more Filipinos would already have a Bible at home. But what if the book were from a less popular religion, like Hinduism, or even Satanism? What if the book criticized Christianity or promoted atheism?
I suspect that overnight, there would be thousands of experts on the separation of church and state. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, for one, would be all over the news denouncing this blatant violation of religious freedom. It would call the distribution an obvious violation of secularism.
And it would be right.
Fr. Joaquin Bernas, SJ, a member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission that drafted our Charter, would agree. In 2013, he wrote in his Inquirer column on secularism in the context of Carlos Celdran’s case: “Nonestablishment of religion is violated when the state shows preference for one religion over others or prefers religion to no religion.”
These policemen, whose authority to represent the state is symbolized by their uniforms, showed preference for Christian religions (particularly Gideons International’s Protestant denomination) when they distributed their Bibles. According to Bernas, the distribution of any religious book by the state is a violation as it shows preference for “religion to no religion.”
Some apologists for the Bible distribution brought up the case of Estrada vs Escritor, one of the precedents for the Philippines’ benevolent neutrality toward religion. In 2006, the Supreme Court decided that Soledad Escritor could not be fired from the government for “disgraceful and immoral conduct.” Escritor was living with her partner without being married to him, which her employers found immoral. But her church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, approved of their relationship, making her dismissal a violation of her religious freedom.
Does preventing policemen from distributing Bibles violate their religious freedom? It depends. If they’re banned from doing so even when they’re off-duty, then yes. But while they’re on duty and paid to do police work, then no.
Not only would the distribution be tantamount to the state showing preference for certain religions (and religion in general), it would be wrong in the sense that any unofficial activity would be. No one would question why it’s wrong for an on-duty policeman to hold a placard in protest of the government or to join a rally in support of a presidential candidate.
Instead of Estrada vs Escritor, the more relevant case here would be Aglipay vs Ruiz. In that case, the court ruled that the stamps printed to commemorate the 33rd International Eucharistic Congress in Manila did not violate secularism because the primary purpose was to promote Manila and attract tourists.
Just last year, the Court of Appeals ruled similarly when it held that the stamps printed to commemorate the 100th founding anniversary of the Iglesia ni Cristo was not a violation because its primary purpose was to “generate income for the State, rather than bestow any grant or aid to the INC.”
The principle in both cases is clear: It is okay for the state to do things that benefit religions as long as the benefit is secondary to a primary, secular purpose.
What secular purpose was primarily served by the policemen distributing New Testament Bibles made by Gideons International? None.
The separation of church and state enshrined in our Constitution promises freedom of religion for all. What the policemen did betrays the reality that in the Philippines, some believers are freer than others.
Red Tani is the founder and president of the Filipino Freethinkers.
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