For the moment public attention has shifted from the RH Bill and the proposed Divorce Bill. Media attention is now on allegations made by the Philippine Charity Sweepstake that the previous administration had authorized the gift of Pajeros to various church leaders. Issues of constitutionality have been raised as well as allegations of bribery to buy the support of church leaders for the past administration. What might be the problem?
I will stay away from political allegations and make observations only about possible constitutional issues.
Already the provision that has been cited is Article VI, Section 29(2) which says: “No public money or property shall be appropriated, applied, paid, or employed, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, sectarian institution, or system of religion, or of any priest, preacher, minister, other religious teacher, or dignitary as such, except when such priest, preacher, minister, or dignitary is assigned to the armed forces, or to any penal institution, or government orphanage or leprosarium.” Another pertinent provision would be Article III, Section 5 which says “No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion . . .” which is frequently cited as commanding separation of church and state.
On the basis of these provisions the general question has been asked whether the use of public money may be authorized at all in a manner that might benefit religious persons or institutions. It is not a question that is easily answered by either a Yes or No. The answer that jurisprudence has given to the question is “It depends.” It depends on what? It depends on the purpose and uses of the gift.
The example that immediately comes to mind is the early case of Aglipay vs Ruiz where the constitutionality of the use of government funds for the issuance of postage stamps commemorating the 33rd International Eucharistic Congress of the Catholic Church was challenged. In upholding the validity of the government action Justice Laurel wrote that “while the issuance and sale of the stamps in question might be said to be inseparably linked with an event of a religious character, the resulting propaganda, if any, received by the Roman Catholic Church, was not the aim and purpose of the Government.” He said that whatever benefit might have redounded to the Church was merely incidental to a legitimate government purpose.
Of a similar nature was the more recent expropriation of the birthplace of Felix Y. Manalo, the founder of the Iglesa ni Kristo, for the purpose of preserving it as a historical landmark. It was justified by saying that whatever benefit the Iglesia ni Kristo might reap from it was merely incidental to the public historical purpose.
Not knowing for what purpose the bishops were gifted with Pajeros, if indeed they were, I cannot say whether the gifts were constitutionally justifiable or not. But if indeed there were such gifts and we want to find out whether they were constitutionally proper or not, are there jurisprudential norms which can be used for the purpose? There are; but I do not think we can find them in the Aglipay case or the Manalo case. I would use the norms found in decisions involving government aid to religious schools.
In essence, these decisions prescribe a three-part test for determining constitutionality. First, does the grant of aid have a primary “secular legislative purpose”? Second, will the aid have principal effects which neither advance nor inhibit religion? Third, will the aid foster "an excessive government entanglement with religion."
How can we determine if the donation of Pajeros can pass these three-part tests? We can only determine these by looking at the terms of the donation. We can find these from the records of the PCSO. The records will show whether the donations were for a secular purpose and whether they limited the uses to those which do not have the principal effect of advancing or inhibiting religion, and whether the needed supervision, if any, could involve excessive government entanglement with religion.
If indeed the Pajeros were given primarily for a legitimate secular purpose, such for instance as relieving poverty or promoting health, we may have to look at the suitability of the Pajeros for the declared purpose. Next the people would want to know to what extent the gifts have actually been used for the declared purpose or if they have been used for other undeclared purposes such as advancing religion. And if the government attempts to verify what they are being used for, would there arise a degree of undesirable entanglement of government with religion?
All told, it would seem to me that if Congress decides to conduct investigations “in aid of legislation,” as both the Senate and the House seem to be poised to do, things can turn out to be a very messy entanglement of state and religion. I can see that Church authorities will have to think very carefully how to handle the PCSO revelations. But I am not sure that the CBCP can command the bishops concerned what to do. Bishops answer directly to the Pope.
4 July 2011