Should God be 'banned' in gov't offices?

By David Dizon, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jun 19 2012 09:17 PM | Updated as of Jun 20 2012 08:06 AM

Priest: We are pushing God away

MANILA, Philippines - A party-list lawmaker representing the youth sector is pushing for a new law that will ban religious imagery and liturgical rites in government offices.

Kabataan party-list Rep. Raymond Palatino said House Bill 6330 or “An Act empowering heads of offices and departments to strictly implement the constitutional provisions on religious freedom in government offices” seeks to ban ecumenical prayer and religious ceremonies inside government offices during office hours.

Speaking to ABS-CBN, Palatino said the Philippine Constitution clearly states that the government should not unduly favor one religion over another. He said HB 6330 merely empowers government agency heads to ensure neutrality of religion inside government offices.

“There should be no religious icons, symbols and ceremonies in government offices. We recognize that we have more than 1 religion in the Philippines. Those Filipinos who go to government offices are not there to affirm their spiritual beliefs but to transact with government,” he told Punto por Punto host Anthony Taberna.

Palatino, who is Catholic, said he has received many complaints from government employees who are “forced” to attend Mass or other religious activities by their superiors even during office hours.

He criticized some government offices who do not transact business during lunch break because they hear Mass.

“There are people who go to government offices during lunch break and they can’t transact because there’s a Mass. Ano yung ma-i-interpret nila? Ito ba ay official na ine-endorse ng government agency?” he said.

Suppressing religious freedom?

Meantime, an official of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) said HB 6330 is meant to suppress the freedom of religious expression instead of guaranteeing religious freedom.

“Hindi freedom of religious expression ang mangyayari diyan sa panukalang batas bagkus ay pagkitil pa nga sa freedom of expression of religion,” Fr. Melvin Castro, executive secretary of the CBCP Episcopal Commission of Family and Life, said.

Castro noted that while liturgical rites are held at the House of Representatives during lunch break, no one is required to attend.

He also warned that the House Bill seeks to ban ecumenical prayer, which allows all religions to pray one after the other.

“It is saddening that what is coming out of this proposed law is that we are pushing God away. We cannot separate a citizen of the republic from his adherence to any religion,” he said.

‘Religious expression as a form of violence’

In the interview, Palatino denied that the proposed anti-religion bill was prompted by several liturgical rites for Chief Justice Renato Corona at the Supreme Court during his impeachment trial this year. Corona was removed by the Senate impeachment court for failing to declare his dollar accounts in his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth.

He noted that there is no single religious image that is acceptable to all religions in the Philippines, hence the need for neutrality in government offices.

He also said the bill does not ban prayer in government offices as long as it is done individually and not led by the head of the office.

“Secular ang ating bansa. There are Filipinos who have no religion. For them, prayer is something that should not happen inside government offices. That is being addressed in one part of the House bill. Now, on the Masses, we don’t have a problem if it is done outside government work but it would be better if it is done in church instead of government offices. Attendance would go up if it is done in church,” he said.

Palatino said the expression of religion inside a government office is actually a “form of violence” especially if an individual does not subscribe to that religious belief.

“In a democracy, the rights of the minority should be protected also…If we want to pray or practice our religion inside government offices, there is no problem. Our individual rights are protected. However, it’s a different thing when it is a person of authority because the state shouldn’t favor one particular religion,” he said.

“Not all people in the country are united that a particular religious icon is acceptable. For me, it is a form of violence. Hindi yun pagtugma sa iyong belief pero hindi ka magrereklamo dahil tanggap mo na na normal yan na nangyayari sa government offices,” he added.

Castro, however, said passing the Palatino bill perpetrates its own form of violence against people who want to express their religious beliefs.

“Passing such a law is violence, psychological violence and social violence, because you are imposing a law banning this from happening in government offices. It is an assault on freedom of expression and religious freedom,” he said.