Leaders from various religious groups are seen during an interfaith gathering hosted by the Christian charity World Vision in the Philippines. (Photo: World Vision Philippines)
The Philippine Congress passed the Magna Carta of Religious Freedom Act on Dec. 1 which lawmakers say aims to protect every citizen’s right to religious freedom.
The new law will guarantee the implementation of rules and regulations on how the state, including all government agencies, would respect the right of Filipinos to choose their religion.
“With this bill, Filipinos will be encouraged to pursue spiritual growth by affording them the freedom to conduct their lives in accordance with their faith or religious belief without the fear of persecution, threat, or punishment,” lawmaker Eddie Villanueva said in a speech endorsing the law.
Villanueva lauded his fellow lawmakers after careful deliberation and rewriting the bill to make it “inclusive” to all forms of faith, including those who wanted to exercise their right not to believe.
“… this measure also aims to promote a free market of religious ideas in the country where no religion is suppressed or quelled over the other. By leveling the playing field for the propagation of different religions, Filipinos are afforded the full spectrum of varying faiths and the freedom to choose to which they will subscribe,” Villanueva added.
The bill has enumerated the rights of every person to propagate one’s religious beliefs, the right to disseminate religious publications, the right to religious worship and ceremonies, the right to organizational independence, and the right to freedom against discrimination in employment.
The law criminalizes compelling a person, by means of force, threat, intimidation, or punishment to choose or not to choose a religion; to obstruct, hinder or prevent the flow of access to religious information; to defame, harass, or humiliate a person by reason of one’s religious belief, among others.
The Magna Carta on Religious Freedom Act was first tabled in 2021 but faced criticisms from humanist and non-religious groups for allegedly being “too Christian.”
Religious minorities like Muslims, and atheists, cried foul over the language and form of the bill that allegedly assumed all Filipinos were Christians.
“For far too long, the non-religious, atheists, and humanists have never been given a voice nor their sentiments heard in any policies or bills crafted by our lawmakers despite the Philippines being a secular State. And if this Magna Carta of Religious Freedom becomes a law, it will endanger the lives of many people, not only the non-religious but even civil groups,” Javan Poblador, Chief Executive Officer of Humanist Alliance Philippines, told reporters in May 2021.
Several Muslim leaders have likewise opposed the passage for giving the preferential option to Christians but not to non-Christians.
“The Magna Carta of Religious Freedom is supposedly aimed at protecting the right of the public to freedom of religion or belief. But instead, it gave preferential treatment to religious groups, especially Christians, while completely excusing humanist and minor religious groups,” Muslim scholar Ismael Ahadas told UCA News.
The Philippine atheist society said that approving the bill disregarded the international human rights standards on the right to religious belief, including the right not to believe in any form of deity or religion.
“The bill may have repercussions for humanist organizations and activists, as well as broader civil society in the Philippines, who are already forced to operate in an increasingly authoritarian environment marked by repressive ‘red-tagging’ practices and the abuse of anti-terrorism legislation,” Filipino atheist Gismar Ocaya told UCA News.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines said it was not easy to draft a bill that would cater to all denominations but outlining religious rights was a “necessity” in every democratic society.
“We need to know what our specific rights are… and what the corresponding punishment is should anyone dare violate that right,” Father Joven Hestula from the CBCP Commission on Ecumenical Affairs told UCA News.