Days ago, a photograph of a highway border welcome arch in Marawi City appeared on the front page of another daily newspaper. The arch had a sign bearing the phrase “Islamic City of Marawi.” Many lawyers have been debating about the sign ever since the photograph made it to the news.
The constitutional mandate on the separation of church and state prohibits the use of public funds and property to promote religious institutions and activities. Accordingly, all local government units operating under the Constitution, including those in the autonomous regions, have to be secular in character. This means that no province, city, or municipality in the country can identify itself with any religion.
In the same light, no sign or marker paid for or maintained by public money, or erected on government property, is supposed to identify itself with any religion.
The separation of church and state applies to all religions. Thus, no local government unit can officially call itself a “Catholic,” “Protestant,” “Christian,” “Aglipay,” or “Iglesia” province, city, or municipality.
In other words, the sign “Islamic City of Marawi” appearing on that welcome arch invites legal scrutiny on constitutional grounds.
Even assuming that the charter of Marawi City allows the use of the phrase “Islamic City of Marawi,” that provision in the charter invites constitutional challenge as well because all laws—and a city charter is a law—must comply with the Constitution’s mandate on the separation of church and state.
The separation of church and state is not directed against religion per se. It is to put all faiths at an equal, neutral footing in terms of the way the government uses public property and spends public funds. That way, incumbent officials of the government will not be tempted to give preferential treatment to the church of their faith and prejudice other faiths.
This arrangement also protects the sensitivities of those who do not belong to any organized religion, because the constitutional freedom to worship includes the freedom not to worship.
In the long run, the government, be it national, regional, or local, should not be seen as favoring any particular religious faith.
Although the population of Marawi City has a Muslim majority, the fact that there are a number of non-Muslims in the city cannot be ignored. The neutrality of government must apply to both the majority and the minority religions in any of its territories.
How that sign in Marawi City came to be is anybody’s guess. What makes it controversial is how and why the regional authorities of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and the city government of Marawi allowed that signage to be displayed so conspicuously.
Speaking of separation of church and state, the practice of local government units in naming public streets after religious personalities and leaders of organized religions should be the subject of scrutiny by Congress on constitutional grounds.
Public streets are maintained by the government. The electric posts which illuminate them at night consume electricity paid for by the government. Street sweepers and garbage collectors who keep these roads tidy draw their salaries from public funds. The same may be said for policemen who keep these streets safe day and night.
Since the upkeep of these streets is shouldered by the government, it may be reasonably argued that the expenditure of public funds for the upkeep of a road named after a religious personality is not in accord with the constitutional mandate on the separation of church and state.
Private roads are different. Since they are maintained by the owner of the subdivision or village that owns them, those roads may be named after anybody, including religious personalities.
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To say that the people of Marawi City have been suffering for the past weeks is to describe the situation there rather mildly. Actually, the city has been a war zone.
When the fighting ends and Marawi City is eventually rebuilt, the root cause of the violence there should be identified and nipped in the bud.
Perhaps this is the ideal time for the Department of Education to discourage the proliferation of ultra-conservative Muslim-run schools which encourage young Muslim Filipinos to take the path of violence and hatred against non-Muslim Filipinos.
Like all constitutional rights, religious freedom is not absolute. The freedom cannot be invoked simply to justify non-compliance with the laws. As a Supreme Court decision puts it, religious freedom is not synonymous to freedom from compliance with law on the ground of religious dogma.
Therefore, a school operated by a faith that promotes hatred and violence against non-believers, can be regulated, or even outlawed by the state, even if the lessons are held in a classroom environment.
The needless and unjustified taking of a life is not only prohibited under Philippine law; it is a breach of the basic postulates of practically every organized religion that operates on the face of the earth.
From the 1980s up to the turn of the twentieth-century, many of the Christians and Muslims in Marawi City did not treat each other as enemies in a war. More often than not, the fighting took place outside of Marawi City, like in Maguindanao and Cotabato.
The problem in Marawi City started at the turn of the current century when Muslim terrorists from the Middle East entered the Philippines clandestinely to foment, among Muslim youths in key areas in Mindanao, a hatred for non-Muslims. Eventually, all that hatred culminated in extremist groups like the Maute.
For law and order to return to Marawi City, it is imperative that the government capture the ring leaders of the Maute and lock them up for a long time. The government should likewise dismantle those “hate centers” in Mindanao which brainwash young Muslim Filipinos into hating non-Muslims. They should be replaced by classrooms with competent local teachers who sincerely believe in religious tolerance.
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