At this day and age, who would have thought that people could still be sentenced to jail by simply expressing their opinion about issues concerning society?
At a time when human rights are at the very core of our basic laws, a person such as Carlos Celdran was given a verdict of imprisonment after expressing his support for women’s reproductive health and opposition to the Catholic Church’s meddling in the passage of the Reproductive Health Bill. Even if the said bill is now a law (thanks to Congress), ironically, the Church still managed to score a point with this latest conviction.
On September 30, 2010, Filipino tour guide, cultural activist, and performance artist Carlos Celdran staged a protest at the Manila Cathedral. Dressed as Crisostomo Ibarra, the lead character in Dr. Jose Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere”, Celdran interrupted mass, raised a sign with the word “Damaso” (pertaining to a character in Rizal’s novel which symbolizes corrupt individuals in the Church), and shouted, “Stop getting involved in politics!” Celdran staged the protest in front of church-goers including Papal Nuncio Edward Adams, Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales, and Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim.
The police apprehended Celdran on the spot and detained him. The rector of the Manila Cathedral, Monsignor Nestor Cerbo, filed charges against him for violation of Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code, which states:
“The penalty of arresto mayor in its maximum period to prision correccional in its minimum period shall be imposed upon anyone who, in a place devoted to religious worship or during the celebration of any religious ceremony shall perform acts notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful.”
On January 28, 2013, the Manila Metropolitan Trial Court Branch 4 judge Juan Bermejo Jr. found Celdran guilty of violating Article 133 and was given an intermediate prison sentence of 2 months to a maximum of 1 year. Celdran, who was temporarily free due to bail, said he will appeal the sentence up to the Supreme Court. Netizens and ordinary citizens alike lamented their disgust and shock over the sentence, arguing that Celdran simply exercised his freedom of expression and that no one should be imprisoned for voicing out their opinion about a social issue. The hashtag #FreeCarlosCeldran is once again trending in Twitter and comments of support poured into Celdran’s official Facebook page.
Archaic, Punitive Law?
Celdran’s lawyers are arguing that their client was charged guilty under a law that is as old as the Spanish friars which Celdran saw in CBCP today—the Revised Penal Code. The 79-year old penal code, which is a revision of the original Spanish penal code, still contains archaic provisions that are no longer relevant and deemed inappropriate for punishing criminal liability at this day and age.
Nevertheless, there are still provisions in the law that enshrines the core of our constitution—human rights. This includes Article 133, the same article which Celdran was found guilty of.
Article 133 became part of the RPC with respect to the country’s Christian and Islamic roots but most importantly out of respect for religious freedom. It is anyone’s right to be associated in a religion of his/her own and exercise one’s religious beliefs. The article protects this right by preventing one religion from offending the feelings and beliefs of another religion, especially during the practice of such belief in one’s place of worship.
Article 133 is upheld even further by the Bill of Rights of the 1987 Constitution, particularly Section 5, which states:
“No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed…”
The Most Unfortunate Place and Time
The 1987 Constitution enshrines not just freedom of religion but freedom of speech as well, as Section 4 of the Bill of Rights states:
“No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.”
This very passage in our Constitution guarantees people like Carlos Celdran of the right to express their opinions no matter how these opinions go against the beliefs of any group whether political, racial, or religious in nature. Celdran’s protest in 2010 does not violate any laws if we are going to look at it from the ends—the expression of support for women’s reproductive rights and opposition to Church meddling in the passage of the RH Bill.
But the end does not justify the means.
It’s totally agreeable that back when the debate over the RH Bill is still hot, church leaders needed to be reminded of the limits of their influence. But the means through which Celdran gave his astounding reminder just defies the very core of our basic laws and makes him undeniably guilty of violating Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code.
There are two important phrases in this violation: “…acts notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful” and “…in a place devoted to religious worship…”
By staging his protest during Holy Mass, Celdran placed himself in the most unfortunate time and place to express an unquestionable end. Whether it’s Holy Mass, Islamic sermons, or Buddhist prayers, it is offensive to intentionally interrupt one’s exercise of religious beliefs. We could argue that mass can sometimes be interrupted by cell phones unintentionally ringing or babies suddenly crying, but these are not willful acts of interruption, nor offensive in nature.
What made Celdran’s act even more offensive is his equation of Church leaders to corrupt Spanish friars while mass was going on by flashing the now iconic word. No matter how accurate this comparison is, you don’t offend the faithful inside their place of worship (and let us not begin questioning who we mean by “faithful” here, for Christ’s faithful followers are all sinners after all). If the word was posted outside of the cathedral, it could have been a different story for Celdran.
An Important Lesson
There are a lot to learn from this landmark case. One, you don’t step on one basic right in favor of another. If we can go around it to avoid conflict but still achieve the same ends, then let us do so. We are also made aware of the value of tolerance and how both Celdran and the Church should have exercised it: The former should have exerted due tolerance despite his flamboyant disapproval of the latter’s position; the latter should have exercised due tolerance by not going as much as filing a court case.
Most importantly, we are made aware of how our church leaders, who are preachers of forgiveness, should have been the first to exercise such virtue. It is understandable that the Church only wants to prevent future disrespectful acts from happening, hence, the filing of the case. But this is not Christ’s way; if it were Jesus who witnessed such act, He would admonish Celdran humanely and forgive Him for his trespasses. The church leaders who pursued this case are human after all—egotistic and filled with pride.
The only achievement of this verdict is the reiteration of respect and tolerance for religious beliefs. But by putting Celdran behind bars, this achievement will only defeat itself. Free Carlos Celdran!
“To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” — C.S. Lewis