Strong fences make for good neighbors

A LAW EACH DAY (KEEPS TROUBLE AWAY) - Jose C. Sison - The Philippine Star

This is a case where our Supreme Court has occasion to apply and explain quite clearly, the principle of the separation of Church and State. It is squarely applicable to the recent events involving the INC that will surely settle the controversies that may have arisen in the aftermath of the protest rallies that its members and officials have recently staged.

The case involves Johnny, the District Pastor of a religious sect duly organized and existing under Philippine laws (SDA). He started as an evangelist selling its literature twenty eight (28) years ago and worked himself way up the ladder and got promoted several times until his present position with 12 churches under his jurisdiction.

While District Pastor, he received several communications from the SDA treasurer of the provincial mission asking him to admit responsibility and accountability for the church tithes and offerings collected by his wife in his district amounting to P15,000 and to remit the same to the mission.

In his written reply, Pastor Johnny reasoned out that he should not be made accountable for the unremitted collections since it was Pastors Gerry and Efren who authorized his wife to collect the tithes and offering because he was indisposed to do the collecting at that time.

Five days later, he went to the office of Pastor Gerry who was the President of mission in the province and tried to persuade the latter to convene the Executive Committee for the purpose of settling their dispute and his dispute with another Pastor, Rudy, arising for the failure of the latter to pay or the balance of the repair done on Rudy’s motorcycle by his friend, Dino. But Pastor Gerry denied his request since the other committee members were out of town and there was no quorum. Johnny thus left the office but he overheard Gerry saying “Pastor Johnny you are talking tough”. Irked by such remark he returned to Gerry’s office, tried to overturn his desk but was unsuccessful since it was heavy. Then Johnny banged the attaché case of Gerry on the table, scattered the books in the office and threw the phone. Fortunately two other pastors were around and pacified them.

The next day Johnny and his wife were summoned to attend the meeting of the Executive Committee to discuss the event that occurred as well as the alleged non-remittance of church collection. A Fact Finding Committee was created to investigate Johnny. Sensing that the Committee members were biased against him, Johnny asked that six of them be excluded. But only two, Gerry and Rudy were excluded. Thus a week later, Johnny received a letter of dismissal on the grounds of misappropriation of denominational funds, willful breach of trust, serious misconduct, habitual neglect of duties and commission of an offense against the duly authorized representative of SDA.

So Johnny filed a complaint before the Labor Arbiter (LA) against SDA and its officers and prayed for reinstatement with back wages and benefit, moral and exemplary damages.

After due hearing, the LA rendered a decision in favor of Pastor Johnny ordering SDA to reinstate him to his former position without loss of seniority and other rights and back-wages, 13th month pay, allowance, Service Incentive leave pay, Moral damages of P50,000, exemplary damage of P25,000 and attorney’s fees of P22,000.

The LA ruled that Johnny was not accorded due process because there was no due notice of the charges against him as he was merely invited to a meeting and the grounds for dismissal were only revealed to him when the letter of dismissal was finally issued. The LA also ruled that there is no basis for the breach of trust and loss of confidence because there were only six instances when Johnny collected and received the tithes and donations and based on records and finding of the church auditor, Pastor Johnny was able to remit all of them. Johnny cannot also be made accountable for the infractions committed by his wife as there was no proof of conspiracy between them. He is not likewise guilty of serious misconduct. Though he committed damage to property, he did not physically assault Pastor Gerry or any other pastor. This could not be considered grave enough as to warrant the ultimate penalty of dismissal. As regards the habitual neglect of duty, no proof at all was presented.

SDA and the officers appealed this ruling to the NLRC. Initially it vacated the LA ruling but upon motion of Johnny, it reinstated the LA decision. Then, on motion of SDA raising for the first time the ground that the LA has no jurisdiction over the complaint due to the constitutional provision on the separation of church and state, the NLRC dismissed the complaint because of lack of jurisdiction without ruling on the merits of the case. Was the NLRC correct?

No. The principle of separation of church and state finds no application in this case. The idea advocated by this principle is to delineate the boundaries between these two institutions and thus avoid encroachments by one against the other. While the State is prohibited from interfering in purely ecclesiastical affair, the Church is likewise barred from meddling in purely secular matters.

An ecclesiastical affair is one that concerns doctrine, creed or form of worship of the church, or the adoption and enforcement within a religious association of needful laws and regulations for the government of the membership, and the power of excluding from such association those deemed unworthy of membership. They relate to matters of faith, religious doctrines, worship and governance of the congregation. The case at bar does not even remotely concern any of the above. While the matter at hand relates to the church and its religious minister, it does not ipso facto give the case a religious significance. What is involved here is the relationship of the church as an employer and the minister as an employee. In this case Johnny was terminated from employment. The grounds invoked here are all based on Article 282 of the Labor Code which enumerates the just causes for termination of employment. It is palpable that Johnny’s dismissal from the service is not religious in nature.

In view of the foregoing, the Resolution of the NLRC dismissing the case for lack of jurisdiction is nullified and set aside and the decision of the LA is reinstated and affirmed (Austria vs. NLRC et al. G.R. 124382, August 16, 1999). 

This ruling is applicable to the INC case which also involves the violation of our Criminal laws, instead of the Labor Code.

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E-mail: attyjosesison@gmail.com.

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