Wednesday, June 11

Of commemoration and the Constitution

Every time the Iglesia Ni Cristo comes up in the news, as it has with increasing frequency over the past several months, I resist the urge to discuss it on this blog. For one, I find that those who are vocal about their opinion on the INC are pretty immoveable in their belief. But, for another, as a lay member of the Church, I am in no position or capacity to speak on behalf of the Church Administration. I always include this disclaimer any time I mention the Church on this blog.

Anyway, the reason I break my silence now is this column by Emil Jurado, which appeared today on the Manila Standard Today. In it, he raises a fuss over commemorative stamps recently issued by the Philippine Postal Corporation in anticipation of the Church’s Centennial in July. He says:

I am bringing this up not because I am a Catholic, but because the provision which clearly mandates separation of church and the state is clear enough. The word “shall” is mandatory, and such issuance of a commemorative stamp by a government agency like the Philippine Postal Corp. is patently unconstitutional. Whoever in the Philippine Postal Corp. who authorized it should be charged for violating a constitutional mandate.

A Letter to the Editor published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer about a week ago said just about the same thing:

The INC is unquestionably a religious sect, church or sectarian institution. As I see it, the issuance of the stamps in question is assailable on constitutional grounds insofar as it entails the appropriation and payment of public money that redound to the benefit and support of the INC. It is evidently the purpose of the stamp issue to focus attention on the INC religion. The publicity engendered and the resulting propaganda received by the INC are quite obvious.

It’s worth asking whether the courts have had an opportunity to issue judgment on this matter. And they have—in Aglipay vs. Ruiz. The head of the Philippine Independent Church, Gregorio Aglipay, sought to prevent the then-Bureau of Posts from issuing stamps to commemorate a significant religious event. Only, it wasn’t an anniversary of the Iglesia Ni Cristo (the Church had been registered with the Philippine government for all of 23 years at the time this decision was signed). It was the 33rd International Eucharistic Congress, an important event in the Roman Catholic Church that was held in Manila.

The Supreme Court held that even though the stamp was “inseparably linked with an event of a religious character,” it did not violate the Constitution because the aim of the government in issuing it was not to advance Catholic propaganda. The Court added that any advantage the Catholic Church might have gained out of the issuance of the stamps would be merely incidental to the government’s goal, which was to attract attention to the Philippines.

I will concede, of course, that it can be argued that the Aglipay decision is not applicable to the INC Centennial stamps. I personally think that it is—the revenue alone would be to the advantage of the government, the stamps being classified as commemorative postage. Others, however, might rationally argue that unlike the stamps in question in the Aglipay decision, the INC Centennial stamps do not explicitly promote the Philippines. I will let the legal issue be. After all, IANAL—I Am Not A Lawyer.

There is something that is more peculiar to me about all this ruckus, however. Has it crossed the mind of critics who think like Jurado that their objections might apply to other religions, too?

PhilPost has already issued several commemorative stamps about Catholic events such as the canonization of Pedro Calungsod, the 50th anniversary of the Catholic Diocese of Malolos, and the 300th anniversary of the death of Mother Francisca Del Espiritu Santo de Fuentes.

These, of course, are understandable—Pedro Calungsod is the second Filipino saint (despite the stamp in his honor featuring a map not of the Philippines, but of Marianas Island), Mother Francisca Del Espiritu Santo de Fuentes was the “first Prioress of the Congregation of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena in the Philippines,” according to the PhilPost website, and Malolos, is...well, it’s located in the Philippines.

But what of the stamp to commemorate the beatification of Pope John Paul II in 2011, and of the special 3D holographic stamp to commemorate his and Good Pope John’s canonization this year? We can make the argument that Pope John Paul II was a frequent visitor of the Philippines, but even that is a bit of a stretch.

(All the stamps I linked to in the two preceding paragraphs, by the way, I found in one of the comments in the PDI Letter to the Editor I quoted above.)

I don’t see anyone, not even Emil Jurado, complaining about these stamps. Not that anyone should. So why all the specific hate on the INC? Why does it seem like every time the INC lifts a finger in the public sphere, critics find something to bellow about?

To me, the most important takeaway from the Aglipay decision is this: “what is guaranteed by our Constitution is religious liberty, not mere religious toleration.” The mere recognition of a religion does not, by itself, constitute a violation of the separation of Church and State. If it did, we would all be working on Christmas Day and Lent. What violates the principle of religious liberty is when the state affords one religion benefits or concessions while unreasonably denying them to another.

Issuing stamps to commemorate the Centennial of the INC—a homegrown Church that is now present all over the world—is not narrow-minded. Condemning the act, just because it is the INC that apparently “benefits” from it, is.

Photograph of the INC Centennial stamp from PHLPost website

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