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Did the CBCP Violate the Separation of Church and State in Pastoral Letter?

The bishops denounced the government's "pattern of intimidation," as evident in the shutting down of ABS-CBN and harassment of media personalities.

“The dissenting voices were strong but they remained unheeded. None of the serious concerns that they expressed about this legislative measure seemed to be of any consequence to them. Alas, the political pressure from above seemed to weigh more heavily on our legislators than the voices from below.” 

In a strongly-worded pastoral letter, the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has called out the Duterte administration for the passage of the controversial Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020. According to lawyers opposing the law, it is prone to abuse and can be weaponized to suppress legitimate dissent and opposition. (Read: What Will Happen If The Anti-Terrorism Bill Gets Signed Into Law?)

The CBCP has denounced the government’s “pattern of intimidation,” as was supposedly evident in the shutting down of ABS-CBN and harassment of media personalities with multiple charges.

Protesters wearing face masks display anti-terror bill placards during a rally at a university campus in Manila on July 4, 2020. (Photo from AFP / AC Dimatatac / Philippine Star)

Fall of Democracy

The CBCP states that it is “still in disbelief” at how the government fast-tracked the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 while the country is struggling to contain and solve the COVID-19 crisis. They likened the government’s statement that those who are not terrorists have nothing to fear to the Chinese government’s message following the implementation of the national security law in Hong Kong.

The CBCP further expressed its opposition especially to the warrantless detentions under the law. They said that this is similar to the “initial moves in 1972 that eventually led to the fall of democracy and the rise of a dictatorial regime that terrorized the country for 14 years.” (Read: 5 Religious People Who Were Detained in Their Fight for Human Rights)

“Knowing how, in just the recent past, the law has been used too many times as a weapon to suppress legitimate dissent and opposition, we cannot but share in the apprehensions expressed by the lawyers and ordinary citizens that filed the petition against the said infamous law before the Supreme Court.”

Separation of Church and State

Photo from Panay News

In response to the said pastoral letter, the Malacañang has released a statement, saying that the CBCP seemed to have violated the doctrine of separation of Church and State.

“The letter of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) published today, July 19, appears to have violated the doctrine of the separation of Church and State as mandated by the Constitution in Section 6, Article thereof: “ [t]he separation of church snd state shall be inviolable,” said Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Atty. Salvador Panelo in a statement.

However, CBCP spokesperson Fr. Jerome Secillano said in an interview on ABS-CBN News Channel that the Constitution does not bar church leaders from expressing their opinions. (Read: Caritas PH on Anti-Terror Bill: ‘Activism is not Terrorism’)

“From my legal understanding of the constitutional provision of separation of Church and State, it means that the State is not actually going to put up an official religion. Secondly, that state funds should be used to fund a particular religion… But it doesn’t actually bar Church leaders, priests, bishops, or any religious [sic] for that matter to express their political opinions,” he said.

“We cannot just be quiet about all these things. Otherwise, we also risk losing our voice at the same time, we also risk not doing our moral obligation to our country,” Fr. Secillano added. (Read: Religious Superior Group Decries Duterte’s Approval of Anti-Terror Law)

The 1987 Constitution of the Philippines declares: The separation of Church and State shall be inviolable. (Article II, Section 6), and, No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed. No religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights. (Article III, Section 5)

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