SC sides with Bacolod bishop on ‘Team Patay’ issue
(The Philippine Star) - January 22, 2015 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - The Supreme Court (SC) has upheld the legality of the display of controversial tarpaulins in the Bacolod cathedral by the local diocese to campaign against senatorial candidates in the 2013 elections who supported the Reproductive Health Law.

Voting 9-5 in session yesterday, the high court voided and declared unconstitutional the order of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) for the dismantling of the so-called “Team Buhay/Team Patay” tarpaulins.

Granting the petition of Bacolod Bishop Vicente Navarra, the SC held that the Comelec has no power to regulate the free expression of private citizens that are neither candidates nor members of political parties.

The high tribunal also ruled that the assailed Comelec order dated Feb. 27, 2013 had “violated the rights of free speech and expression of petitioner.”

“The Comelec’s actions, directing petitioners to remove the tarpaulins on their own property, also violated petitioner’s right to property,” added the ruling read by SC spokesman Theodore Te in a press conference yesterday.

Lastly, the SC stressed that the content of the tarpaulins was not religious speech even if was written by the petitioner.

The Comelec yesterday agreed with the SC that the right to free speech and the right to property must be upheld, but the poll body clarified that the reason for taking down the Team Buhay/Team Patay tarpaulin from the San Sebastian Church in Bacolod in 2013 was the oversized banners.

“Our concern was the size of the tarpaulin. We recognize your right to post in a private property that is not owned by a candidate or part of a campaign but you have to adhere to the size requirements,” noted Comelec spokesman James Jimenez.

Jimenez explained that the Comelec has not been furnished a copy of the SC ruling so they do not know what it says about the size of the tarpaulin.

According to Jimenez, the SC ruling could provide guidance on the issue of campaign posters in the coming elections.

“I think the question for us now is the size. Can we regulate the size? We have to see the decision first,” he added.

Navarra said in a statement that the diocese had expressed gratitude and commended the SC justices.

Fr. Felix Pasquin, rector of the San Sebastian Cathedral, said they are happy over the SC decision.

“We feel vindicated not only over the freedom of expression issue, but (also) over the crucial matter of the campaign for the protection of human life. We thank God above all,” he added.

“We are glad and elated that the Supreme Court upheld the right of the citizens who happen to be Catholics to express their political views,” said Fr. Melvin Castro, executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines Episcopal Commission on Family and Life.

When asked if it is possible for the church to again post tarpaulins with the names of anti-life candidates once the 2016 election campaign starts, Fr. Castro gave his personal opinion that the SC ruling clears the way of any legal obstacles.

“It is up to individual dioceses and bishops. But with this ruling it gives the church legal basis to do so,” Castro said.

Associate Justice Marvic Leonen penned the decision with Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio and Associate Justices Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, Diosdado Peralta, Mariano del Castillo, Jose Mendoza, Bienvenido Reyes and Estela Perlas-Bernabe concurring.

The five justices who dissented were Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr., Arturo Brion, Lucas Bersamin, Jose Perez and Martin Villarama Jr.

Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza inhibited due to his previous participation in the case when he defended the Comelec in his previous post as solicitor general.

In the assailed order, Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr. directed the removal of the tarpaulins displayed in front of San Sebastian Cathedral, which he described as “election propaganda.”

The tarpaulin listed the lawmakers who voted in favor of Republic Act 10354, or the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012, and branded them “Team Patay,” while those who voted against the law as “Team Buhay.”

The Comelec, through the Bacolod election registrar, issued a notice to Navarra to take down the billboard.

The diocese, however, refused to comply, prompting the Comelec Law Department to issue an order to Navarra on Feb. 27 to remove the tarpaulin because it is an oversized campaign material.

The controversial tarpaulins measured six feet by 10 feet. Comelec Resolution 9615 said campaign posters should not exceed two by three feet.

Navarra, however, maintained they have not violated any election law since the poster was not meant as a campaign material but as an expression for those who voted for and against the RH Law.

The Catholic Church has opposed the enactment of the Reproductive Health Law on fears that it would promote abortion, hence those who voted in favor of the law are called Team Patay (death) while those who voted against it are Team Buhay (life).

The prelate argued in their petition that the billboard is covered by the broader constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression, not by election laws or rules and regulations.

He said the Comelec has no jurisdiction over the Church, aside from the fact that the tarpaulin is inside church premises.

The tarpaulins remained in the facade of the Cathedral until election day on May 13, 2013. – Edu Punay, Sheila Crisostomo, Danny Dangcalan

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