Rebuilding the Walls Separating Church From State

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Rebuilding the Walls Separating Church From State

by Manuel L. Quezon III

On Dec. 2, 1956, during the Second National Eucharistic Congress in Manila, President Ramon Magsaysay read an act consecrating the Philippines to the Sacred Heart. He simply reiterated the consecration of the Philippines to this popular devotion undertaken by then Vice-President Fernando Lopez in 1950 — but his action provoked a storm of protest.

One of those who objected to Magsaysay’s action, an Evangelical leader named Dr. Gumersindo Garcia, said, “In accordance with the principle of the separation of Church and State, the president of this country should not give preference or favor to any particular church.”

Two young leaders came to their president’s defense. Senator Soc Rodrigo said the president was acting as a private individual, while Raul Manglapus maintained that it was wrong to take the separation of Church and State to mean that a private individual was not entitled to publicly display his faith.

The protest to Magsayay’s act was joined by the Philippine Independent Church and the Philippine Federation of Christian Churches. But a citizen’s group, called “The Spirit of 1896,” headed by Judge Guillermo Guevara, joined the fray. As the lines of battle were drawn, another thing became apparent: This was as much a fight between generations as anything else. The point of separation between the views of elder Filipinos, as represented by Judge Guevara, and the perspective of outstanding young leaders such as Rodrigo and Manglapus, was the proper role of the Catholic Church in a secular state.

Judge Guevara’s generation would have remembered that less than twenty years earlier, the president of the Philippines had deliberately absented himself from the country in order to avoid participating in the International Eucharistic Congress held in Manila in 1937, explaining that “as president of the Philippines, I am not in a position to do what your program calls for.” He also declined to petition the Pope to appoint a Filipino archbishop of Manila (the archbishop then was Michael O’Dougherty, who would prove to be the last foreign archbishop), saying that this would constitute a violation of the separation of Church and State.

They would have remembered, too, that a campaign begun by the Catholic Church, to allow religious instruction in public schools, bore fruit when the National Assembly passed an act authorizing religious instruction — by any denomination — as an acceptable alternative to a new course on character building, good manners and right conduct mandated by the same act. The bill was promptly vetoed by Malacanan, resulting in a pastoral letter criticizing the executive action, and something of a tiff between the Palace and the bishops.

Memories of the squabble over the Religious Instruction bill certainly could account for the alacrity with which the restoration of religious instruction in public schools was met. In 1953 administrative charges were filed against Secretary of Education Cecilio Putong and three others “for allegedly intending to sabotage the religious instruction provision” of the Administrative Code. During the investigation that ensued (Putong would be absolved after a presidential inquiry), it was maintained that religious instruction in the schools was being “sabotaged” by, among other things (as stated in one complaint), religion classes that were being held beside the room where the school band was practicing. Not a good way to keep the students’ attention, particularly when the rooms were divided by a sawali wall.

It was alleged that Putong was part of a committee aimed at “the elimination of religious instruction in public schools.” Grandmaster Emilio P. Virata was quoted as having said that, “At present we have a law permitting religious instruction in public schools. There is a strong movement to make this instruction compulsory. This I take as a violation of our Constitution and I urge everyone of you to use all your power and influence to not only to frustrate this movement but also to have the religious instruction law repealed.”

For the next couple of years it seemed that the Propaganda Movement against Spain was alive again. Cries of Masonic conspiracy were raised, for it was true that Masons figured prominently in attempts to enforce a strict definition of the separation of Church and State. But it was also true that the issue was also important to non-Masonic groups, such as the Evangelicals (the case of the Philippine Independent Church was a special one, for it had always had friendly ties with the Masons as some of its clergy were Masons themselves).

Then in the summer of 1955, Secretary of Education Gregorio Hernandez issued Department Order No. 5 which allowed religious instruction to be carried out during the school session of public schools, instructing religious instructors to hand in their grades to school principals, and furthermore giving principals the discretion to take the grades into consideration in appraising the conduct of children. The order was challenged by a parent, who challenged a principal’s request for his child’s grade in religious instruction. The case reached the Supreme Court, which dismissed the case because, it pointed out, the parent had authorized his child’s taking religion classes, thus making the option requested in writing by the parent obligatory -you could not request something and then wriggle out of its consequences afterwards. Nonetheless, the case did result in a further clarification of the implications optional religious instruction in public schools had on this constitutional principle.

More skirmishes lay ahead: The famous fight lead by Claro M. Recto (not a Mason) and Jose P. Laurel (a Mason) to make Rizal’s novels mandatory reading in all schools; also Recto’s reaction to what he perceived to be illegitimate religious pressure exerted on the electorate by the Catholic clergy in the elections of 1953 and 1955. Recto even suggested, in an article in The Lawyers Journal (1958) that a Constitutional amendment be passed to further clarify the definition of the separation of Church and State in the Constitution.

You may be puzzled over all this hubbub over religious instruction, and may wonder about its significance today in an age when Filipino leaders and politicians regularly invoke religious authorities to support their candidacies. Never before, it seems, has religion played such an important role in national politics — with the implication that the old, strict definition of the separation of Church and State is obsolete.

The president of the Philippines, after all, lives in mortal terror of what the Catholic bishops might say negatively about her. And if she does, despite the bishops so far having let her be, perhaps there is some hope that the walls between church and state can be rebuilt.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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