Separation of Church and State

What it Means for the Philippine Church

by Tommy Tirona

What exactly does "Separation of Church and State" mean?

A few months back, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals of California, U.S.A deemed unconstitutional the phrase 'under God' from the Pledge of Allegiance. It was held to be so for it violated the doctrine of separation of Church and State.

The basic issue of the case is not new. In the United States, their Supreme Court has decided cases which led to the banning of the posting of the Ten Commandments, Bible readings, and reciting of prayers in public schools. In the Philippines, we would scoff at such an idea; after all, this country is predominantly Christian. Some would attack the decisions of US courts as a sign of the decreasing significance of religion and of morality.

Separation of Church and State

But what does the doctrine of separation of Church and State really mean?

In the Philippines, the doctrine is enshrined in Sec. 5, Art. III of the 1987 Constitution:

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.

There are three parts in this provision: the "non Establishment clauses," the "Free Exercise'' clause and the "No Religious Test'' clause.

In the case of Everson v. Board of Education decided by the US Supreme Court, the Non-Establishment clause means:

that a state cannot set up a church; nor pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religion, or prefer one religion over another nor force nor influence a person to go to or remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion; that the state cannot punish a person for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non- attendance; that no tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activity or institution whatever they may be called or whatever form they may adopt to teach or participate in the affairs of any religious organization or group and vice-versa.

Simply put, the State must be neutral.

The Free Exercise clause means that people have the right to exercise and enjoy their religious beliefs without discrimination or preference by the State - subject of course to certain limits, without which, the public order and safety of the people would be sacrificed.

The No Religious Test clause means that no test about a person's religious beliefs shall be required for the exercise of one's political and civil rights. This is why in forms submitted to government, there is no box for "Religion" that needs to be answered. The Non-Establishment clause and the Free Exercise clause go hand-in-hand. The difference between the two is that the former mandates that the State shall not pass a law establishing, prohibiting, or favoring a religion. The latter involves the free exercise of a person's religious belief within reasonable limits, i.e. that the exercise of one's religious belief will not be inimical to the general welfare's health and safety.

Why the Controversy?

Separation of Church and State - Protest March

With regard to the US Pledge, the resurgence of patriotism in the USA (a result of the 9/11 attacks) was one reason for the negative reaction to the decision of the Court of Appeals. Arguably, many mistook the decision as one making the Pledge illegal, when in fact, what was considered unconstitutional was only the phrase 'under one God' and not the entire Pledge. The decision was essentially a case of being 'at the wrong place at the wrong time.'

But still, there is a view that such rulings with regard to the separation of Church and State are considered as a sign of degrading morality and the loss of faith in God. In fact, one can argue that by prohibiting such display of faith, the State itself is breaching the doctrine of separation of Church and State. However, this is not to be viewed as such. It isthat the State be neutral when it comes to religious beliefs of people. History is replete with examples of empires and nations which imposed a specific religious belief on its people. Often, this resulted in the persecution and death of others who did not practice the 'official faith' as mandated by the ruler. In this country's history alone, we can see this in practice during the Spanish colonial period, where the 'conversion of the infidel' was a tool for the subjugation and pacification of the native populace. At the height of the Spanish regime, religion was spread 'by the sword' and those who opposed the official religion were declared filibusteros, garroted or, at the very least, excommunicated.

Nowadays, in a more 'enlightened' world, most democratic countries observe and practice (to some degree or another) the doctrine of Separation of Church and State.The religions themselves (with the exception of some extreme sects) seem to have become more mature, in the sense that it is no longer necessary to wield the sword for the glory of God; that salvation or enlightenment can also be found in deep reflection, meditation and good actions. By being neutral or by acting in such a way as to preserve its neutrality, the State has (hopefully) avoided the situation that was prevalent in ancient and medieval times - a situation which in fact continues to beset some countries (until recently, Afghanistan). Important in democratic states is the idea of religious freedom; that the State stays and acts neutral to avoid being usurped by outside forces to the detriment of the people.

The Right to Believe

The right to believe in any belief system is perhaps the only right that a democratic state cannot suppress, deny or prohibit. One can freely believe in the existence of several gods, one god or no god at all. One can believe that God created the world in seven days, or that Homo sapiens and life on earth was a result of a grand genetic experiment done by aliens, or that the offering of animal or even human sacrifice is essential to a person's belief system. It is only when such belief is manifested into action that the State enters into the picture to control what could be dire consequences. The essential question is whether such belief manifested into action becomes a threat to the general welfare, i.e. whether it is detrimental to public health, safety, morals, convenience or policy. If it does, then the State, for the general welfare, regulates the activities of such a belief system. However, the right to believe is never prohibited for it is a supreme right.

The USA, one must remember, is a melting pot of peoples. The situation is different here in the Philippines where belief in the faith - be it Catholic, Evangelical, Protestant, Islamic - is deeply ingrained in one's consciousness and culture. In the USA, no one religion has the upper hand. Granted, a sizable portion falls under the realm of Christianity, yet there are those who have their faith as Islam, Judaism, and other smaller, lesser known religious beliefs. In a society as democratic as the USA where there is a multiplicity of cultures, it is important for the State to preserve its neutrality.

Faith Begins at Home

The solution to this 'absence of faith' in public schools is really simple: the teaching of the faith, the practicing of it, should be done, first and foremost, at home, in the family. The State does not prohibit the teaching of the faith or its practice in the family, for this right, this freedom is guaranteed by the Free Exercise clause. The family assumes an important role in the teaching and the practicing of the faith. By family, it need not be the nuclear family only but also the extended family the grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. Thus, the family being an important pillar in the upholding of the faith is made even more apparent. The family is, after all, the first school one enters in one's life. The strength of the Church lies in a strong family. This is where the faith can be taught and practiced.

Separation of Church & State, Philippine Style

How then can one argue the Separation of Church and State in the Philippines where the Church can sometimes "meddle" or "intervene" in affairs of State. Excellent examples are the Church's stand against artificial methods of population control, the death penalty, corruption and the like. And who can forget the famous words of Cardinal Sin in February 1986 and January 2001 when he enjoined people to "Come! Come to Edsa!" Does this not constitute a violation of the doctrine?

First, the provisions of the Bill of Rights are a limitation of the powers of the State. In other words, the doctrine acts against the State and in favor of private persons. The doctrine as enshrined in the Bill of Rights prevents the State from entering into ecclesiastical affairs and from imposing, preferring or repressing a religion. The doctrine acts like a one-way-street with its direction towards the State, rather than the Church.

Second, when the Church "meddles" or "intervenes" in matters of the State, it does so in the exercise of its beliefs and these - if not a threat to the general welfare - are protected by the Constitution under the Free Exercise clause.

Third, such act by the Church also constitutes an exercise of political rights: the freedom of speech, expression and assembly. The Church merely guides its flock to exercise their political rights correctly (for example, by telling them to vote honestly or by choosing life over death). This is no different from what some religious organizations do in the United States, like Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition group which supports the Republican Party. In the local scene, who could forget the El Shaddai's support of Estrada's party in the 1998 National Elections?

Fourth, this country is a democracy and, as such, one cannot really prevent the Church from "intervening" in the affairs of the State. The State may turn a deaf ear to the rhetoric of the Church, do nothing (i.e., act neutral) that would violate the doctrine, and institute, say, its population control programs or continue imposing the death penalty.The Church, in reprisal, may simply tell its followers to not vote for those who favored such bills. But in the end, it is the individual who makes the decision and exercises his political rights. All in all, this was done within the framework of democracy with no violation of the doctrine by either side. Thus, the Church's role in the EDSA rallies was one that constituted an exercise of political rights within the framework of democracy. The masses held, the prayers made - all these were merely an invocation for spiritual guidance and not an imposition of its dogma upon the State in order to capture it.

At the end of it all, Jesus Himself said it best, when he was asked by the Pharisees about the taxes paid to Rome.His reply: "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's. Render unto God what is God's.'' This line sums up what the doctrine of Separation of Church and State really is, for when Church and State become too entangled in each other's 'realms', such entanglement leads to the degradation of the Church, and corruption of the State.
Tommy C. Tria Tirona is a graduate of AB Political Science from the De La Salle University. Background photos for this article were taken from “People Power: The Philippine Revolution of 1986” (copyright: The James B. Reuter, SJ Foundation)

Originally published in Totus Tuus Maria Magazine, October-December 2002

Subscribe Now to our Free E-Newsletter!

Get the latest articles on the Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Catholic Faith, straight to your email inbox - Free!

Enter your E-mail Address
Enter your First Name (optional)

Don't worry — your e-mail address is totally secure.
I promise to use it only to send you Catholic Newsletter.

Click here to return from Separation of Church and State to Catholic Beliefs Home Page.

Join our Community!

Enter your E-mail Address
Enter your First Name (optional)

Don't worry — your e-mail address is totally secure.
I promise to use it only to send you Catholic Newsletter.

Got a Prayer Request?

Prayer Request

Share Your Story

Share Your Story