A Christian, a Jew, and an atheist are standing in line to be executed during the French Revolution. The Christian goes first, and he lays down on the guillotine. Before the executioner pulls the lever the Christian shouts, “My god will save me!”. The lever is pulled, and the blade swooshes down, stopping just short of his neck. The executioner, believing a miracle of god has occurred, figures he can’t kill this man, as so sets him free. The Jew lays down on the guillotine. Like the Christian, he shouts, “My god will save me!”. The lever is pulled, the blade falls, and once again it stops just short of his neck. The executioner, again, believes god is on this man’s side, and lets him go. Finally, the atheist lays down on the guillotine. He examines the guillotine, finds a rock in the gears, and says to the executioner, “Well here’s your problem…” The moral of the story (joke)? There’s a time and a place for being dumb.
When I read the news this morning, I learned that Youth Party-list Rep. Raymond Palatino has withdrawn his Bill of banning religious ceremonies and symbols in government premises and has offered his apology for the backlash that has resulted. I think this was a sensible move by Rep. Palatino as there really is a time and place for dumb things. This is not the time for that proposed law of his.
My recent article on Rep. Palatino’s HB 6330 drew some comments and criticisms from a few atheists. Proponents of the Bill use the argument of the principle of Separation of Church and State (a favorite amongst atheists). To support the contention, United States jurisprudence was used, particularly Engle vs Vitale, to point out that:
“Neither the fact that the prayer may be denominationally neutral nor the fact that its observance on the part of the students is voluntary can serve to free it from the limitations of the [First Amendment]. . . . [It] ignores the essential nature of the program’s constitutional defects. . . . Prayer in its public school system breaches the constitutional wall of separation between Church and State.”
Although it is acknowledged that the majority opinion prevailed (6-1), it is also interesting to note that the wall of separation between Church and State has been used rather loosely. Reliance on the wall of separation of Church and State seems as if it is a case of “ipse dixit”. The term, as Wikipedia shows, labels a dogmatic statement asserted but not proved, to be accepted on faith in the speaker. Atheists seem to take the ruling on Engle vs Vitale hook, line, and sinkers by merely relying on the authority of the Supreme Court majority decision and not because of the rationale behind it. While it is true that if government officials coerce their employees to attend to a sectarian ceremony and compel them to embrace that sectarian faith, the wall of separation is breached. But no government policy or law is in place in the Philippine government to coerce people into doing so. No particular religion is established by the State in having religious ceremonies or symbols in government buildings, any more than the Constitution’s invocation of the Almighty God favoring any particular religion.
Now I find it funny for Filipino atheists using US jurisprudence like Engle vs Vitale as some sort of a golden yardstick despite the fact that in the United States, their Congressional sessions always start with a prayer. A visit at the US Congressional website will show that Congress even has religious offices and events such as Bible studies, Jummah Prayer services, Torah studies and these services and activities are held in the US Capitol. Anyway, going back to Engle vs Vitale particularly Justice Black’s statement that has been quoted to me at least a gazillion times, I do acknowledge what Justice Black and the other 5 Concurring Justices said. But I do trust (and hope) that atheists are also familiar with the lone dissenting opinion (Stewart) on the case. Stewart, in his dissenting opinion, stated that the language “wall of separation” appears nowhere in the U.S. Constitution or the First Amendment. It comes from a letter that President Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 and this is specifically regarding the Reynolds vs. US case. In Stewart’s opinion, the Establishment Clause only prevents the government from setting up an official religion, like the Church of England. Stewart said that a simple, nondenominational, voluntary school prayer does not establish a state religion. Instead, it allows students to participate in the United States’s spiritual heritage. Now, granting that religious ceremonies and symbols held at, say, the Manila City Hall, come from the Catholic fold, there is no coercion by the government officials mandating non-Catholic employees to renounce their religion and to embrace the Catholic faith. The practice merely allows employees to participate in the Philippines’ spiritual heritage in having inspiration from the Almighty God. So it is rather funny that the US Supreme Court allows the right to religious expression when it comes to Congress but not with school children.
Now, in the Everson vs Board of Education of Ewing case, the Court upheld that the State provide reimbursements to school children from religious schools (and non-religious schools) using public transit. However, the Court also noted that:
“Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect a wall of separation between Church and State.”
But if we look deeper into this, we really cannot use this “Wall of Separation between Church and State” as an argument for all situations that tackle conflicts between religion vs government. In fact, SC Justice Rehnquist criticized the Everson theory when he said:
“Reynolds is the only authority cited as direct precedent for the “wall of separation theory.” Reynolds is truly inapt; it dealt with a Mormon’s Free Exercise Clause challenge to a federal polygamy law.”
The rationale for the ruling in the Reynolds case is that the system is designed as if the State cannot distinguish between “religion” and state when it comes to acts. So if the law prohibits polygamy (which it did in the Reynold’s case), it doesn’t matter whether the defendant subscribes to polygamy due to his religious beliefs; the fact that the act of polygamy is done makes the defendant criminally liable. People can believe in whatever they want to believe and no law shall be established to stifle this right. But the State is in perfect position to legislate on acts whether stemming from beliefs coming from religion or non-religion. If one’s BELIEVES that sacrificing the life of one’s first born is the way of his religion or according to his god, then he is free to believe that. However, if he DOES kill his first born then he can be criminally liable under the law. That is the essence of the Jeffersonian “Wall of Separation”.
In one of my responses to the comments given to me, I described what is called the “Lemon Test”. This test was established in the Lemon vs. Kurtzman case. The test consists of three prongs:
1.The government’s action must have a secular legislative purpose;
2.The government’s action must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion;
3.The government’s action must not result in an “excessive government entanglement” with religion.
As what Wikipedia stated, if any of these 3 prongs are violated, the government’s action is deemed unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. So my atheist friend is correct to say that it only takes one prong to be violated in order for a government action to be deemed unconstitutional. So let’s assess…
For the first prong, I was asked to suppose that if I were, say, the Mayor of Cebu City, and I decide to erect a large Sto. Niño statue in City Hall knowing full well that there are Protestant and Muslim employees and citizens who detest graven images or deny the divinity of Jesus and find it blasphemous to call him God, can I honestly say that my action has the primary secular purpose of inspiring all people who enter City Hall to become just and moral?
My answer is a qualified “YES”.
If my City’s predominant faith tradition is Catholicism, I have no problems using Catholic symbols. Symbols are nothing but mere expressions according to faith traditions but the underlying intent is to promote divine inspiration. If the Muslim employees choose to challenge the veracity of Jesus Christ’s divinity then that is beyond the ambit of the intent. Again, under the current Philippine Constitution, I would say YES that I can honestly say that the mayor’s action has the primary secular purpose of inspiring people at the City Hall to become just and moral because:
1. The intent for the symbol used was to impart Divine inspiration (not necessarily Catholicism). I would say a reasonable person would not take offense being in the presence of holy symbolisms of other faiths. A reasonable person would respect it. Just like Bishop John Shelby Spong’s experience in the Buddhist temple, being in the presence of Buddhist symbols and the scent of incense and all… he didn’t think he was in a pagan worshipping place and he didn’t think any hostility towards the place or the religious icons around. Instead, he even prayed to the God of his own faith tradition there and simply acknowledged that he was in a divinely-inspired place. In the United States, the Washington Memorial was erected at the National Mall in Washington, DC. America is a country comprised of people of different faiths and beliefs. The Washington Memorial is a huge obelisk, as you know. The obelisk is a symbol of the Egyptian Sun-god Ra. The designer was even aware of this fact. The obelisk is also associated with Baal worship. Sure, many Christians and Jews and perhaps even Muslims would find such symbols as offensive because the prominent display of the obelisk may be construed as an attack to their religious sensibilities. But would taking serious offense at such a monument be the reasonable thing a reasonable person would do? I do not think so.
2. Secular, to me, does not mean the absence of religion. It simply means that all religions are equal under the law. Now, does the intent of promoting Divine inspiration apply to all people of religion? YES! Especially in the Philippines there is no question about it as everyone is presumed to believe in the Divine. (Atheists are at a disadvantage in the Philippines and as I mentioned to the Pinoy Atheists folks before the Filipino Freethinkers days, they should have a party-list group that would represent atheists because they are under-represented in the country. Too bad no one took it to heart and I was even ridiculed for saying it. Oh well…) Now if I being the Mayor explicitly say that the purpose of putting up the Sto. Nino is to promote and uphold the Catholic faith, then that is a different story. If I forbid other citizens of putting the Star of David or a symbol with Islamic significance, then again that is a different story. It just so happens that the I am in an environment that is predominantly Catholic thus I used a symbol of what the predominant faith tradition in my City uses to meet a secular objective.
Going back to the prongs…
Does the government’s action have the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion? The answer is “No”. No particular religion is being advanced as the purpose is merely to promote Divine inspiration (which is technically allowed since our laws do acknowledge the existence of a Divinity). If there is any benefit towards a particular religion, again in our case… these are mere incidental benefits and we do have jurisprudence to guide us that incidental benefits to a particular religion do not make up violations of the Constitution on the separation of Church and State. So the government passes the second prong.
Does the government act result in “excessive entanglement” with religion? The answer again is “No”. The ceremonies and the symbols do not have a direct bearing on government employee duties and responsibilities. A government employee at the City Hall will still collect fees for permits regardless of the presence of a crucifix or an image of the Virgin Mary in the premises. The government passes the third prong as well.
Do I find Palatino’s HB 6330 unconstitutional? Well to me under the current Philippine Constitution, it is unconstitutional. Having religious ceremonies and symbols in public places does not violate the Separation of Church and State. To me it passes all three prongs as I previously explained. The intent of having religious symbols and ceremonies in public places is to promote Divine inspiration and not a particular religious sect. The sectarian nature of the symbols and ceremonies are beyond the ambit of the intent. Palatino’s Bill is unconstitutional because it inhibits people’s rights and freedom of religious expression and exercise. People can obtain Divine inspiration from religious expression and exercise. The framers of the Constitution clearly stated that the law was promulgated by the sovereign Filipino people with the aid of Almighty God. In other words, it was promulgated with Divine inspiration (or as the Marcos Constitution states, “Divine providence”). If Divine inspiration was a part of the promulgation of the law, I see no reason why Divine inspiration cannot be part of government institutions implementing of the law and other responsibilities of government. Shunning Divine inspiration in the affairs of government, I don’t believe, is what the framers intended. We can say that religious injunctions may be shunned in government affairs but inspiration is different. The government cannot stop people into believing that eating shellfish is an abomination. However, the government cannot establish a law banning the consumption of shellfish in lieu of the Levitican injunction.
There is nothing that the Palatino Bill would accomplish but to merely stifle freedom of religious expression. The act of allowing the use of public places for the people to have inspiration from the “Almighty God” is not against the Cory Constitution. The act of allowing the use of public places to coerce or force the people into embracing a particular religious sect is what is against the law. Justice Black and the majority ruling of Engle vs Vitale may be quoted ad nauseam again but I will just again take this to cases and legal opinions that critique the ruling or the applicability of the ruling in particular cases such as that of the Philippine government offices and public spaces.
There is currently no policy or law that prohibits the use of public spaces of activities with non-religious purposes. The use of government facilities for the use of religious government employees for the secular purpose of “Divine inspiration” cannot be barred by government. (In the Philippines, under the current Constitution, “secular” is viewed as theistically-neutral but not necessarily belief-neutral because it is assumed that all Filipinos believe in the existence of the Almighty God) Similarly, its use by government employees for other secular purposes not necessarily aimed at invoking Divine inspiration, cannot be barred by government as well. It is said that HB 6330 is about prohibiting government offices from holding religious activities inside government buildings. The question is – why would such things warrant a prohibition? The intent of holding religious activities and having religious symbols in government buildings do not promote nor establish a State religion (any more than starting Congressional sessions with a prayer in both the House and the Senate establishing a State religion). People still retain their rights and freedoms to subscribe to any religious sect they wish to believe in. Palatino himself said that his bill aims to “implement the constitutional provision on freedom of religion where the state should remain neutral and cannot favor any religion”. The intent of allowing the use of government facilities is religiously neutral; whatever favor or benefit goes towards a particular religion is merely incidental.
Again, there is a time and place for dumb things. The country is mired with all sorts of problems in the economy, threats of foreign invasion, unemployment and underemployment, cost of living, etc. Why Rep. Palatino even thought about considering this rather dumb proposed law in the first place at this time is beyond me.