A couple of readers chimed in on last week’s article when I asserted that secularism means “government neutrality in religious matters” — a phrase not of my own invention but quoted from Fr. Joaquin Bernas, a noted constitutional lawyer and Jesuit priest.
The first claimed that there is no such thing as neutrality and that I “shouldn’t be telling people that removing “God-loving” is neutral when it is not (referring to my own example of DepEd removing the words “God-loving” from its vision statement). This reader stated that doing so already favors unbelievers.
I countered that it is neutral because removing the words “God-loving” does not prohibit private individuals from loving God. It was not as if DepEd changed “God-loving” to “God-hating” or “God-denying,” which would be equally atrocious to a secularist. In fact, this is what the rephrased DepEd vision statement looks like:
“We dream of Filipinos who passionately love their country and whose values and competencies enable them to realize their full potential and contribute meaningfully to building the nation. As a learner-centered public institution, the Department of Education continuously improves itself to better serve its stakeholders.”
In terms of religious tone, this statement is perfectly neutral and what makes it so is the absence of any mention of God or religion. This absence, however, favors neither believers or unbelievers as both parties can easily adopt the statement as their own, without making any concessions to their beliefs.
Another reader based in the US gave an example of a Colorado judge who ruled that a baker named Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop discriminated against a same-sex couple by refusing to bake them a wedding cake, and was now forced to make wedding cakes for an occasion or ceremony that went against his deep religious convictions.
Admittedly, this is a matter more prickly to resolve than a vision restatement. I will also concur that neutrality is easy to write on paper but much more difficult to implement in practice because humans are naturally subjective and opinionated (this writer included) and thus have to make extra effort to see past one’s inherent biases.
I will again turn to the writings of the late former Associate Justice Isagani A. Cruz, who writes “the right to religious profession and worship has a twofold aspect, freedom to believe and freedom to act on one’s beliefs. The first is absolute as long as the belief is confined within the realm of thought. The second is subject to regulation where the belief is translated into external acts that affect the public welfare.”
In other words, the government guarantee of religious freedom and neutrality holds perfectly and absolutely while belief is confined to one’s mind. Any individual is free to believe or disbelieve as he sees fit. He may even believe in evil deities or worship demons and the state has no right to punish him for doing so.
However, once the individual acts on these beliefs, it is now a different matter because these actions may affect the welfare of other individuals or the general public. For example, if the above-mentioned demon-worshipper were to abduct children because his religion advocates child-sacrifice, the state would well be within its authority to arrest that person and he cannot justify his actions in the name of religious freedom.
In the case of W. Va. Board of Education v. Barnette in the U.S.A., Justice Frankfurter noted that “The constitutional provision on religious freedom terminated disabilities, it did not create new privileges. It gave religious liberty, not civil immunity. Its essence is freedom from conformity to religious dogma, not freedom from conformity to law because of religious dogma.”
So let us go back to the controversial case of Mr. Phillips. Was he within his rights to refuse his services to a gay couple because of his religious convictions? Colorado has a law that prohibits business establishments from refusing service based on race, sex, marital status or sexual orientation. In this light, it is easier to see that Mr. Phillips violated this law and how his religious beliefs do not grant him “freedom from conformity to law.” He was not “forced” to make gay wedding cakes (as claimed by one news site). Rather, the state was only ensuring that he provides the same level of service to everyone who walks into his store regardless of their sexual orientation.
Remember that it was only a few decades ago when many establishments likewise refused to serve customers just because they were black, and many of these establishment-owners had deep religious convictions about the matter as well. Did the law “force” them to serve black customers or did it only ensure fair business practice? How would Mr. Phillips feel, I wonder, if he walked into a restaurant and the owner refused to seat him because it was against his religious beliefs to serve food to Christians?
Originally published in SunStar Davao.