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The Iglesia’s religious freedom

I’m perplexed and disturbed by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima’s continuing investigation against the Iglesia ni Cristo for an alleged incident of abduction. To begin with, the National Bureau of Investigation, the investigative arm of the DOJ, had already conducted an investigation and has concluded that there was no abduction. According to Atty. Manuel Eduarte, head of the NBI’s Anti-Organized Transnational Crime Division, the case of the alleged abduction is “case closed.” Despite this, De Lima has declared that she will continue her investigation.

Doe this mean that De Lima des not trust her own investigative branch? Or does this mean that as an election lawyer prior to her entry into government 7 years ago, that she is better qualified to conduct the investigation even if she has absolutely no experience as a crime investigator?

 The fact that she is a sitting Secretary of Justice insisting on the investigation of a closed case and despite the absence of a complainant brings to mind the act of   former secretary of Justice, Raul Gonzalez, threatening telecommunication and broadcast companies against the playing of the “hello Garci” tape. According to the Supreme Court, such a threat, albeit said verbally and not reduced into writing, constitute a violation of freedom of expression: “In resolving  this  issue,  we hold that  it  is  not  decisive that the press statements made by respondents were not reduced in or followed up with formal orders or circulars. It is sufficient that the press statements were made by respondents while in the exercise of their official functions.   x x x  Any act done, such as a speech uttered, for and on behalf of the government in an official  capacity  is covered by the rule on prior restraint.  The concept of an act does not limit itself to acts already converted to a formal order or official circular.  Otherwise, the non-formalization of an act into an official order or circular  will result in the easy circumvention of the prohibition on prior restraint.”  Ergo, mere utterances made by De Lima may be sufficient to violate protected rights.

While I concede that freedom of speech is not involved in De Lima’s continuing resolve to investigate the INC, the reality is that freedom of religion is as important as freedom of expression. Under the Constitution, freedom of religion is a guarantee that the state will not interfere with the freedom to believe, referred to as the “free exercise clause”; and that the state will not favor a religion, referred to as the “establishment clause.” Under the latter, the duty includes the obligation not to interfere with the affairs of a church.

Perhaps, De Lima’s action may be justified had there been no prior investigation conducted by competent authorities. But the best investigative arm of the government has precisely declared the matter as “case closed.” This, then, makes De Lima’s acts suspect for violating the INC’s freedom of religion. It is tantamount to interference with what clearly is an internal strife within the INC, assuming that there indeed is an ongoing one.

What makes matters worse is that like me, De Lima is also mulling a run for the Senate. It is no secret that the INC is politically influential because it resorts to bloc voting in elections. Her act therefore, aside from constituting unjustified interference with church affairs, appears to be politically motivated. But unlike ordinary politicians who will court the INC, she is resorting to a modified form of “hulidap”: political blackmail. Her act could be construed as “support me and my party or I file charges against you in court.”

All public officials, and even ordinary citizens, have the duty to uphold our penal laws. That is why even ordinary citizens are empowered to resort to citizen’s arrest when a crime is committed in their presence. So did De Lima witness such a crime or is she inventing one given the NBI’s earlier terminated investigation?

The INC has had invaluable contribution to our jurisprudence on freedom of religion. In one case, our Supreme Court nullified a law that recognized a “closed-shop” policy that prohibits the hiring of non-union members. Jovito Salonga, my grand uncle, successfully argued that the law violates the religious freedom of the INC since it prohibits its members from joining unions. In another case, which is one of my favorites, the Supreme Court declared that the broadcast of the INC’s attacks against the catholic church is protected speech: “The bedrock of freedom of religion is freedom of thought and it is best served by encouraging the marketplace of dueling ideas. When the luxury of time permits, the marketplace of ideas demands that speech should be met by more speech for it is the spark of opposite speech, the heat of colliding ideas that can fan the embers of truth.”

To be sure, the INC is no stranger to government’s persistent bullying. What De Lima and her party mates should learn from history is that the INC has never given in to such bullying and will go to court to assert its freedom of religion.

Kudos to the INC!

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