House bill promoting religious freedom hurdles third reading

The House of Representatives has passed on third reading the proposed Magna Carta on Religious Freedom Act, which prohibits the government or any person to burden, curtail, impinge or encroach on a person’s right to exercise his/her religious belief, freedom and liberty of conscience except if the act results in violence or if it is necessary to protect the public.

The House Bill 6492 with 256 affirmative vote, one negative and three abstentions will be forwarded to the Senate for its own deliberations.

HB 6492 was among several bills the House, under the leadership of Speaker Ferdinand Martin G. Romualdez passed on the first day of the resumption of its session after a month-long Christmas break.

Authors of the bill noted that such right is guaranteed under Section 5, Article III of the Constitution and other international human rights instruments to which the State is a party or that it adheres thereto, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Declaration on the Elimination on All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion and Belief.

The proposed law seeks to operationalize Section 5, Article III of the 1987 Constitution, which provides that “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. No religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights.”

Section 6 of HB 6492 states that the right to freedom of religion can be denied, regulated, burdened, or curtailed only if it can be demonstrated that (1) the free exercise of religious freedom or conscience results to violence; and (2) it is necessary to protect public safety, public order, health, property, and good morals.

The bill does not apply to the act of the government in enacting laws in the exercise of its police power.

The bill explicitly protects 12 rights: Right to Choose a Religion or Religious Group; Right to Exercise or Express Religious Belief, Practices, Acts or Activities; Right to Act in Accordance with Conscience; Right to Propagate Religious Beliefs; Right to Disseminate Religious Publications; Right to Religious Worship and Ceremonies; Right to Organizational Independence; Right Against Discrimination in Employment; Right to Freedom Against Discrimination in Educational Institutions; Right of Companies or Businesses to be Founded on Religious Belief; Right of Parents or Legal Guardians to Rear Children; and Right to Tax Exemption.

Under Section 19, it will be unlawful for any person, natural or juridical to compel a person, by means of force, threat, intimidation or undue influence to choose or not to choose a particular religious group, or to subscribe to a particular religious belief; or threaten a person with harm or exert undue influence or pressure to prevent such person from changing one’s religion or belief.                                                                          

The bill also prohibits exerting undue influence over the decisions made by any leader or leaders of a religious community through monetary, political, social and personal gains as well as parochial interest; denying employment to qualified applicants solely on the basis of religion; and terminating employment of a person solely on the basis of one’s adherence to religious beliefs. Ten other types of violations are listed under the provision.

The bill also provides penalties for violation of Section 19 such as fines ranging from a P50,000 to P2 million or imprisonment of six years and one day up to 10 years, depending on the offense and the offender.

The bill further mandates the Secretary of the Department of Justice (DOJ) to establish, maintain and publicize a toll-free number to provide timely and accurate information and respond to queries regarding the rights protected under the measure.