The right to religious freedom

FROM THE STANDS - Domini M. Torrevillas (The Philippine Star) - October 8, 2020 - 12:00am

A core right Filipinos are enjoying is freedom of religion. This fundamental human right is guaranteed and protected under Article 3, Section 5 of the 1987 Constitution of the Philippines, allowing all people the liberty to exercise their religious beliefs and practices without fear, prejudice or interferences.

Because the Constitution protects religious liberty, the country is enjoying a robust, thriving religious community where different religious institutions and faith-based organizations enjoy growth, solidarity, harmony and respect for diverse beliefs and practices.

Freedom of religion is a fundamental right that allows a person to adhere to his own beliefs and convictions without unreasonable restrictions. This right protects people from unwarranted demands, intrusions or prohibitions in the development of their personal religious life. It is the right to think, express and act upon what he deeply believes, according to the dictates of conscience.

An important principle that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints practice is the commitment to religious freedom. For nearly 200 years, church leaders have taught the importance of religious freedom for everyone. The 11th article of faith states, “We claim the privilege of worshipping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where or what they may.”

For this reason, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been holding an annual symposium through the Brigham Young University Law School. However, due to the restrictions brought by the current pandemic, this year’s symposium will be held online via Zoom Webinar on Oct. 12-13 from 3-5 p.m.

The International Forum on Law and Religion seeks to provide an avenue for legal experts, academic scholars and religious freedom advocates to share their knowledge and expertise on religious freedom issues as well as its challenges and opportunities to help balance religious liberties and individual rights.

With the theme “Religious Freedom: Rights and Responsibilities,” the forum will feature speakers from different countries in Asia tackling various topics. The line-up for this year includes Brett Scharffs, director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies; former Chief Justice Hilario Davide, Jr. (Ret.), former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Philippines to the United Nations in New York; Rev. Kosho Niwano, co-moderator and executive committee member of Religions for Peace; Prof. Pangalangan, president of the Trial Division and presiding judge of the Trial Chambers; Atty. Neri Javier Colmenares, president of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers; Father Rocco Viviano SJ, interreligious dialogue coordinator for the Japanese province of the Catholic religious order of the Xaverian Missionaries; Dr. Altaibaatar Jargal, executive director of the Mongolian Association for the Study of Religion and Elder Steven Bangerter, First Counselor in the Philippines Area Presidency.

According to Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints in his keynote address during the 2nd International Forum on Law and Religion, “Religious freedom undergirds and is inseparably connected to all other freedoms we cherish. It is the core right.”

While the Philippines is a largely Roman Catholic country, the Constitution ensures that there will always be spaces for other religious denominations to grow. For Latter-day Saints in the Philippines, their rights allow them to serve others and to follow the examples of Jesus Christ freely. Essentially, religion and religious liberty play key roles in creating a charitable, peaceful and stable society.

Elder Quentin Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles encourages Latter-day Saints to “work with people of other faiths” to protect and “be an advocate for religious freedom and morality.”

Being informed, listening to all sides, practicing civility, promoting tolerance and building trusted relationships are some strategies that can help individuals protect and preserve religious freedom for themselves and for others.

The Church has continued to create programs and initiatives in partnership with the state as well as other religious institutions in order to strengthen individuals, families and communities, regardless of their faith and belief.

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If veteran journalists are censored for writing and speaking the truth or because they are too critical of government policies or private individuals’ actions, what protection do student journalists have as they  express their opinion on certain issues?

Student journalists’  protection is promised by the filing by a House minority lawmaker of HB 7780 to “complement and fill the gaping holes” of the Campus Journalism Act of 1991. We hope his bill will make student journalists pursue their ultimate objective – to write without fear or favor.

Agusan del Norte (First District) Rep. Lawrence Fortun said RA 7079 or the Journalism Act of 1991 is “mostly general and generic statements and lack enforceable provisions needed to protect the guaranteed constitutional rights of student journalists.”

The bill “recognizes the varying platforms of expression such as through multimedia and the internet which RA 7079 did not contemplate,” Fortun said in a press statement.

HB 7780 assigns educational institutions to ensure campus journalists’ freedom of expression. Schools must source funds for student publications from maintenance and operating expenses, whereas in RA 7079 the funding source is savings.

“HB 7780 recognizes the paramount right of the freedom of expression of our youth by mandating that all educational institutions guarantee the existence of a student publication in their respective schools. It seeks to protect student journalists from the curtailment of their right to expression and of publication within the parameters of the law,” Fortun said.

According to Fortun, “Our students and youth form a vital role in the tapestry of our democratic society. They have every right to express themselves and to be heard. This bill seeks to foster and protect this right.”

The bill, however, does not mean unlimited, irresponsible freedom for student journalists. It mandates that students should establish a self-regulation book which will act as their manual and guide in the exercise of ethical and responsible student journalism.

The bill’s salient provisions include prohibiting school officials and personnel to censor, restrain, ban and prohibit student  publications’  putting out content that is critical of policies, practices and actions of public officials or the government or any of its instrumentalities, and of a school or its officials.

Schools are prohibited from removing, transferring or penalizing a faculty adviser of a student publication for refusing to suppress the right of the students to free expression.

Nor are they allowed to encourage any action or activity where the intent or effect is to control, diminish, manipulate or otherwise censor student media.

Any student, individually or through a parent or guardian or faculty adviser, may institute proceedings for injunctive or declaratory relief in any court to enforce the rights provided for in this Act.

The Department of Education (DepEd) and the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) are mandated to investigate and impose administrative sanctions on any violation of this Act.

Penalties for violation of this Act are imprisonment of 90-180 days, or a fine ranging from P50,000 or both fine and imprisonment.

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