“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”. (Section 5, Article III, 1987 Constitution)
As it is another hot topic these days, it seems apt to re-examine the basics of the constitutional guarantee on the freedom of religion and its extent.
For me, it was best framed by Justice Isagani Cruz, the ponente of the Supreme Court decision in Iglesia Ni Cristo vs. Court of Appeals (G.R. No. 119673. July 26, 1996) where he wrote, in beautiful prose, thus:
“The right to religious profession and worship has a two-fold aspect, viz., 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.
(1) Freedom to Believe
The individual is free to believe (or disbelieve) as he pleases concerning the hereafter. He may indulge his own theories about life and death; worship any god he chooses, or none at all; embrace or reject any religion; acknowledge the divinity of God or of any being that appeals to his reverence; recognize or deny the immortality of his soul — in fact, cherish any religious conviction as he and he alone sees fit. However absurd his beliefs may be to others, even if they be hostile and heretical to the majority, he has full freedom to believe as he pleases. He may not be required to prove his beliefs. He may not be punished for his inability to do so. Religion, after all, is a matter of faith. ‘Men may believe what they cannot prove.’ Every one has a right to his beliefs and he may not be called to account because he cannot prove what he believes.
(2) Freedom to Act on One’s Beliefs
But where the individual externalizes his beliefs in acts or omissions that affect the public, his freedom to do so becomes subject to the authority of the State. As great as this liberty may be, religious freedom, like all the other rights guaranteed in the Constitution, can be enjoyed only with a proper regard for the rights of others. It is error to think that the mere invocation of religious freedom will stalemate the State and render it impotent in protecting the general welfare. The inherent police power can be exercised to prevent religious practices inimical to society. And this is true even if such practices are pursued out of sincere religious conviction and not merely for the purpose of evading the reasonable requirements or prohibitions of the law.”
So, we have it, the realm of belief, which is absolute, vis a vis realm of action, which is not. You can believe what you want to, you can even preach your creed to your heart’s content but once you start acting on your belief you can be subject to limitation by the state particularly if your acts affect the public welfare.
For example, you can announce to the world that you believe your god is Satan and that he has to be satisfied by sacrificing human virgins and you will be protected by the Constitution. However, you can rest assured that once you try to sacrifice anyone, virgin or not, you will have the Police SWAT Team breaking down your doors to arrest you.
Invoking religious freedom is NOT a MAGIC BULLET that will stop the government from going after you if you do anything illegal like committing large scale estafa.
Simply put, you can believe what you want to believe for as long as you do not do anything that runs afoul of the law which is why the Rastafarians of Jamaica, whose religious practices include the smoking of marijuana, will have a very had time establishing a presence in the Philippines.
The basic limit of religious freedom, therefore, is that it cannot be invoked to protect what is harmful to others or is against the general welfare of the public.
On this and other questions of personal liberties, my favorite anecdote is about the Russian defector who, during the height of the Cold War, managed to escape and fly to the United States.
As he was going out of the plane, he was ecstatic, and he began to waive his arms around shouting “AT LAST I AM FREE! I AM FREE! I AM FREE!” until he accidentally hit the face of the passenger behind him who curtly said “EXCUSE ME SIR, YOUR FREEDOM ENDS WHERE MY NOSE BEGINS!”