There’s a Time and Place for Dumb Things

A Christian, a Jew, and an atheist are standing in line to be executed during the French Revolution. The Christian goes first, and he lays down on the guillotine. Before the executioner pulls the lever the Christian shouts, “My god will save me!”. The lever is pulled, and the blade swooshes down, stopping just short of his neck. The executioner, believing a miracle of god has occurred, figures he can’t kill this man, as so sets him free. The Jew lays down on the guillotine. Like the Christian, he shouts, “My god will save me!”. The lever is pulled, the blade falls, and once again it stops just short of his neck. The executioner, again, believes god is on this man’s side, and lets him go. Finally, the atheist lays down on the guillotine. He examines the guillotine, finds a rock in the gears, and says to the executioner, “Well here’s your problem…” The moral of the story (joke)? There’s a time and a place for being dumb.

When I read the news this morning, I learned that Youth Party-list Rep. Raymond Palatino has withdrawn his Bill of banning religious ceremonies and symbols in government premises and has offered his apology for the backlash that has resulted. I think this was a sensible move by Rep. Palatino as there really is a time and place for dumb things. This is not the time for that proposed law of his.

My recent article on Rep. Palatino’s HB 6330 drew some comments and criticisms from a few atheists. Proponents of the Bill use the argument of the principle of Separation of Church and State (a favorite amongst atheists). To support the contention, United States jurisprudence was used, particularly Engle vs Vitale, to point out that:

“Neither the fact that the prayer may be denominationally neutral nor the fact that its observance on the part of the students is voluntary can serve to free it from the limitations of the [First Amendment]. . . . [It] ignores the essential nature of the program’s constitutional defects. . . . Prayer in its public school system breaches the constitutional wall of separation between Church and State.”

Although it is acknowledged that the majority opinion prevailed (6-1), it is also interesting to note that the wall of separation between Church and State has been used rather loosely. Reliance on the wall of separation of Church and State seems as if it is a case of “ipse dixit”. The term, as Wikipedia shows, labels a dogmatic statement asserted but not proved, to be accepted on faith in the speaker. Atheists seem to take the ruling on Engle vs Vitale hook, line, and sinkers by merely relying on the authority of the Supreme Court majority decision and not because of the rationale behind it. While it is true that if government officials coerce their employees to attend to a sectarian ceremony and compel them to embrace that sectarian faith, the wall of separation is breached. But no government policy or law is in place in the Philippine government to coerce people into doing so. No particular religion is established by the State in having religious ceremonies or symbols in government buildings, any more than the Constitution’s invocation of the Almighty God favoring any particular religion.

Now I find it funny for Filipino atheists using US jurisprudence like Engle vs Vitale as some sort of a golden yardstick despite the fact that in the United States, their Congressional sessions always start with a prayer. A visit at the US Congressional website will show that Congress even has religious offices and events such as Bible studies, Jummah Prayer services, Torah studies and these services and activities are held in the US Capitol. Anyway, going back to Engle vs Vitale particularly Justice Black’s statement that has been quoted to me at least a gazillion times, I do acknowledge what Justice Black and the other 5 Concurring Justices said. But I do trust (and hope) that atheists are also familiar with the lone dissenting opinion (Stewart) on the case. Stewart, in his dissenting opinion, stated that the language “wall of separation” appears nowhere in the U.S. Constitution or the First Amendment. It comes from a letter that President Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 and this is specifically regarding the Reynolds vs. US case. In Stewart’s opinion, the Establishment Clause only prevents the government from setting up an official religion, like the Church of England. Stewart said that a simple, nondenominational, voluntary school prayer does not establish a state religion. Instead, it allows students to participate in the United States’s spiritual heritage. Now, granting that religious ceremonies and symbols held at, say, the Manila City Hall, come from the Catholic fold, there is no coercion by the government officials mandating non-Catholic employees to renounce their religion and to embrace the Catholic faith. The practice merely allows employees to participate in the Philippines’ spiritual heritage in having inspiration from the Almighty God. So it is rather funny that the US Supreme Court allows the right to religious expression when it comes to Congress but not with school children.

Now, in the Everson vs Board of Education of Ewing case, the Court upheld that the State provide reimbursements to school children from religious schools (and non-religious schools) using public transit. However, the Court also noted that:

“Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect a wall of separation between Church and State.”

But if we look deeper into this, we really cannot use this “Wall of Separation between Church and State” as an argument for all situations that tackle conflicts between religion vs government. In fact, SC Justice Rehnquist criticized the Everson theory when he said:

“Reynolds is the only authority cited as direct precedent for the “wall of separation theory.” Reynolds is truly inapt; it dealt with a Mormon’s Free Exercise Clause challenge to a federal polygamy law.”

The rationale for the ruling in the Reynolds case is that the system is designed as if the State cannot distinguish between “religion” and state when it comes to acts. So if the law prohibits polygamy (which it did in the Reynold’s case), it doesn’t matter whether the defendant subscribes to polygamy due to his religious beliefs; the fact that the act of polygamy is done makes the defendant criminally liable. People can believe in whatever they want to believe and no law shall be established to stifle this right. But the State is in perfect position to legislate on acts whether stemming from beliefs coming from religion or non-religion. If one’s BELIEVES that sacrificing the life of one’s first born is the way of his religion or according to his god, then he is free to believe that. However, if he DOES kill his first born then he can be criminally liable under the law. That is the essence of the Jeffersonian “Wall of Separation”.

In one of my responses to the comments given to me, I described what is called the “Lemon Test”. This test was established in the Lemon vs. Kurtzman case. The test consists of three prongs:

1.The government’s action must have a secular legislative purpose;

2.The government’s action must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion;

3.The government’s action must not result in an “excessive government entanglement” with religion.

As what Wikipedia stated, if any of these 3 prongs are violated, the government’s action is deemed unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. So my atheist friend is correct to say that it only takes one prong to be violated in order for a government action to be deemed unconstitutional. So let’s assess…

For the first prong, I was asked to suppose that if I were, say, the Mayor of Cebu City, and I decide to erect a large Sto. Niño statue in City Hall knowing full well that there are Protestant and Muslim employees and citizens who detest graven images or deny the divinity of Jesus and find it blasphemous to call him God, can I honestly say that my action has the primary secular purpose of inspiring all people who enter City Hall to become just and moral?

My answer is a qualified “YES”.

If my City’s predominant faith tradition is Catholicism, I have no problems using Catholic symbols. Symbols are nothing but mere expressions according to faith traditions but the underlying intent is to promote divine inspiration. If the Muslim employees choose to challenge the veracity of Jesus Christ’s divinity then that is beyond the ambit of the intent. Again, under the current Philippine Constitution, I would say YES that I can honestly say that the mayor’s action has the primary secular purpose of inspiring people at the City Hall to become just and moral because:

1. The intent for the symbol used was to impart Divine inspiration (not necessarily Catholicism). I would say a reasonable person would not take offense being in the presence of holy symbolisms of other faiths. A reasonable person would respect it. Just like Bishop John Shelby Spong’s experience in the Buddhist temple, being in the presence of Buddhist symbols and the scent of incense and all… he didn’t think he was in a pagan worshipping place and he didn’t think any hostility towards the place or the religious icons around. Instead, he even prayed to the God of his own faith tradition there and simply acknowledged that he was in a divinely-inspired place. In the United States, the Washington Memorial was erected at the National Mall in Washington, DC. America is a country comprised of people of different faiths and beliefs. The Washington Memorial is a huge obelisk, as you know. The obelisk is a symbol of the Egyptian Sun-god Ra. The designer was even aware of this fact. The obelisk is also associated with Baal worship. Sure, many Christians and Jews and perhaps even Muslims would find such symbols as offensive because the prominent display of the obelisk may be construed as an attack to their religious sensibilities. But would taking serious offense at such a monument be the reasonable thing a reasonable person would do? I do not think so.

2. Secular, to me, does not mean the absence of religion. It simply means that all religions are equal under the law. Now, does the intent of promoting Divine inspiration apply to all people of religion? YES! Especially in the Philippines there is no question about it as everyone is presumed to believe in the Divine. (Atheists are at a disadvantage in the Philippines and as I mentioned to the Pinoy Atheists folks before the Filipino Freethinkers days, they should have a party-list group that would represent atheists because they are under-represented in the country. Too bad no one took it to heart and I was even ridiculed for saying it. Oh well…) Now if I being the Mayor explicitly say that the purpose of putting up the Sto. Nino is to promote and uphold the Catholic faith, then that is a different story. If I forbid other citizens of putting the Star of David or a symbol with Islamic significance, then again that is a different story. It just so happens that the I am in an environment that is predominantly Catholic thus I used a symbol of what the predominant faith tradition in my City uses to meet a secular objective.

Going back to the prongs…

Does the government’s action have the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion? The answer is “No”. No particular religion is being advanced as the purpose is merely to promote Divine inspiration (which is technically allowed since our laws do acknowledge the existence of a Divinity). If there is any benefit towards a particular religion, again in our case… these are mere incidental benefits and we do have jurisprudence to guide us that incidental benefits to a particular religion do not make up violations of the Constitution on the separation of Church and State. So the government passes the second prong.

Does the government act result in “excessive entanglement” with religion? The answer again is “No”. The ceremonies and the symbols do not have a direct bearing on government employee duties and responsibilities. A government employee at the City Hall will still collect fees for permits regardless of the presence of a crucifix or an image of the Virgin Mary in the premises. The government passes the third prong as well.

Do I find Palatino’s HB 6330 unconstitutional? Well to me under the current Philippine Constitution, it is unconstitutional. Having religious ceremonies and symbols in public places does not violate the Separation of Church and State. To me it passes all three prongs as I previously explained. The intent of having religious symbols and ceremonies in public places is to promote Divine inspiration and not a particular religious sect. The sectarian nature of the symbols and ceremonies are beyond the ambit of the intent. Palatino’s Bill is unconstitutional because it inhibits people’s rights and freedom of religious expression and exercise. People can obtain Divine inspiration from religious expression and exercise. The framers of the Constitution clearly stated that the law was promulgated by the sovereign Filipino people with the aid of Almighty God. In other words, it was promulgated with Divine inspiration (or as the Marcos Constitution states, “Divine providence”). If Divine inspiration was a part of the promulgation of the law, I see no reason why Divine inspiration cannot be part of government institutions implementing of the law and other responsibilities of government. Shunning Divine inspiration in the affairs of government, I don’t believe, is what the framers intended. We can say that religious injunctions may be shunned in government affairs but inspiration is different. The government cannot stop people into believing that eating shellfish is an abomination. However, the government cannot establish a law banning the consumption of shellfish in lieu of the Levitican injunction.

There is nothing that the Palatino Bill would accomplish but to merely stifle freedom of religious expression. The act of allowing the use of public places for the people to have inspiration from the “Almighty God” is not against the Cory Constitution. The act of allowing the use of public places to coerce or force the people into embracing a particular religious sect is what is against the law. Justice Black and the majority ruling of Engle vs Vitale may be quoted ad nauseam again but I will just again take this to cases and legal opinions that critique the ruling or the applicability of the ruling in particular cases such as that of the Philippine government offices and public spaces.

There is currently no policy or law that prohibits the use of public spaces of activities with non-religious purposes. The use of government facilities for the use of religious government employees for the secular purpose of “Divine inspiration” cannot be barred by government. (In the Philippines, under the current Constitution, “secular” is viewed as theistically-neutral but not necessarily belief-neutral because it is assumed that all Filipinos believe in the existence of the Almighty God) Similarly, its use by government employees for other secular purposes not necessarily aimed at invoking Divine inspiration, cannot be barred by government as well. It is said that HB 6330 is about prohibiting government offices from holding religious activities inside government buildings. The question is – why would such things warrant a prohibition? The intent of holding religious activities and having religious symbols in government buildings do not promote nor establish a State religion (any more than starting Congressional sessions with a prayer in both the House and the Senate establishing a State religion). People still retain their rights and freedoms to subscribe to any religious sect they wish to believe in. Palatino himself said that his bill aims to “implement the constitutional provision on freedom of religion where the state should remain neutral and cannot favor any religion”. The intent of allowing the use of government facilities is religiously neutral; whatever favor or benefit goes towards a particular religion is merely incidental.

Again, there is a time and place for dumb things. The country is mired with all sorts of problems in the economy, threats of foreign invasion, unemployment and underemployment, cost of living, etc. Why Rep. Palatino even thought about considering this rather dumb proposed law in the first place at this time is beyond me.

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22 Comments on “There’s a Time and Place for Dumb Things”

  1. But how about the OFFICIAL observance by government of state-declared RELIGIOUS HOLIDAYS, such for instance as the following days for the year 2012–

    “Regular Holidays”: Maundy Thursday (April 5), Good Friday (April 6) and Christmas Day (December 25)

    “Special (Non-Working) Holidays”: Chinese New Year (January 23), All Saint’s Day (November 1 and 2) and “the observance of Eid’l Fitr and Eid’l Adha … in accordance with the Islamic calendar.”

    Not to mention local government ordinances declaring the Feast Day (or Fiesta) of its Catholic Patron Saint a “holiday.”

    1. Hi Domingo! Perhaps the government can simply change the name of those holidays to more neutral sounding names. People can call those holidays however they want but in the official government calendar, perhaps the names could be changed. The thing is, if those holidays get cancelled due merely to the religious connection… I think there would be lots of disappointed (and even angry) people. Thanks for reading! 🙂

    2. In all fairness, it is proof positive that not all the religious holidays are related to the de facto state religion. Perhaps studying the culture of a society would shed some light.

      Take for example the 27th day of Nisan in the Jewish Calendar. In Israel, it is a public holiday known as Yom HaShoah–Holocaust Memorial Day. It also serves as the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (19 April 1943 was 27 Nisan for that year).

  2. Here’s a copy of BenK’s comment to the article originally posted in my blog…

    “Well, like I said, this seems to hinge on whether the State as an entity enjoys the same rights as citizens under the Bill of Rights. I think “I am in an environment that is predominantly Catholic thus I used a symbol of what the predominant faith tradition in my City uses to meet a secular objective,” is an EXTREMELY slippery slope. Where, for instance, can we find within the legal mandate of your hypothetical mayor the responsibility to encourage “divine inspiration”? As I know from humbling experience, the argument that “what is not expressly prohibited by law is permitted” is an extremely difficult one to win. The Constitution only dictates that the Mayor, as the personification of the State, NOT discourage divine inspiration or things of that nature, therefore the law requires that, as far as that matter is concerned, he takes NO action. After all, I as a (hypothetical) voter did not elect the Mayor to serve his God, I elected him to serve me. I can certainly respect that what he does when he’s off the clock is his business, but I see the religious symbolism in the place of business which I have assigned him stewardship over, I’m going to wonder where his priorities really are.

    Now I realize that in this predominantly Catholic country, most people are probably okay with it. And would probably be okay with suppressing Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, etc., if the truth were known. So at what point, or how large does the majority have to be, to make persecution — even the subtle kind, like assuming everyone will be “divinely inspired” by Catholic iconography (Bishop Spong’s experience is irrelevant, he knew he was in a mission-specific place) — acceptable? That’s exactly the sort of nonsense we gig countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia for, and they don’t even pretend to be democracies.

    Like I said earlier, the only practical, and non-controversial, solution is to avoid religion in government places altogether. Take it outside, people.”

    1. In Islamic Sharia Law concept…the Law of Allah and the Law for men, are the same…this is the reason most of the Islamic countries are either: Theocracy, Monarchy/Theocracy, or Military Dictatorship…

  3. I think the problem is, when some atheists see religion being practiced in a government office, such as a Sto. Nino image in a part of the police precinct or barangay hall, they assume that it is government-sponsored. I don’t think so. It’s just that many members of that office are Catholic and they want an image in the office. It is done OUTSIDE of any ordinance or law. You can’t even prove they use gov’t funds for it. Ambag-ambag malamang yun.

    So if you’re an atheist in the office and want it removed… I think it’s wrong to ask for such. You are free to avoid having anything to do with it, and unless you are forced by someone in the office to participate, you need not complain. I did work in an office wherein the Born-Again boss forced everyone to participate in prayer meetings, and would flare up if even Catholic workers refused to participate. I agree, that was wrong, and I resented that situation. But you see, it’s an aspect of culture and the personal conduct of those in the office, not really religion itself.

    My advice to the anti-religionists is, just live your lives in the way you see as ethical. Because if you say religion is evil, but yourselves show reprehensible behavior, you are not contributing to, but are even sabotaging your own efforts. Also, even if the religionists are really forcing you to be religious, then turning the table around by banning religion in the office is “stooping down to the level of your opponents.” The probable best way is (hoping I get the quote right) to bite your lip and keep your head straight.

  4. Hector, in light of the recent confusion we have with our sociopolitical system, your article on religion etc is an interesting relaxing topic. there’s an ongoing revolution now on strengthening one’s spirituality (not religiosity). there are groups promoting the idea that what the mayan calendar might be talking about is on the evolution of consciousness – from information age to age of intuition. there are also those of the belief that the world is moving towards the 4th (5th?) dimension, and the only way to accomplish that is towards spirituality. it doesn’t matter what your religion is, or whether you believe in God/god or not; the point is whether you have reached the higher plane of your spirituality or not. for some people, like our parents, they use the words of religious institutions/bible to help them achieve this. for the youth, they feel the religious stuffs are nuisance, but deep within them, their intuition is trying hard to discover their spirituality by themselves w/o the help of religion and its dogmas.

    i’d like to find out how filipinos will tackle the separation of state and religion in the future. because i really believe that religion and state government are the same, they are controlling entities to keep the citizens OBEDIENT and enslaved. but with the information age moving towards the intuition age, i have a feeling both these institutions will be dissolved sooner or later and we will be moving to the higher dimension. far-out!

  5. Secularists intend to accommodate all kinds of religions and faiths…not excluding one; or favoring a particular one. It is simply putting a level playing field to all kinds of religions. We have to separate the Church and the Government…otherwise we become a Theocracy…or are we indeed a Theocracy? Just look at how those Politicians are pandering to some Religious Churches, to capture the Block votes of their members…

  6. Again, as long as their not using any gov’t time, I’m ok with religious practices.

    As for using gov’t funds? It’s at the discretion of the leaders of the office. I think it’s the same thing as giving them money for parties, a round of drinks, or some food. Morale is needed in the gov’t, if a mass gives them morale, I’m for it or at the least, I don’t care.

    I think that if this is treated as advancing a certain religion, might as well ban use of funds for happy hour or require only healthy food to be served at parties since otherwise would be advancing bad health, something would should care about as they’ll also be using our taxes for health care eventually.

  7. My main reason for opposing Palatino’s bill is most secular: He is a Maoist, from a party affiliated to and has never condemned the NPA’s use of violence to achieve its means, and passes bills to achieve the aims of establishing a communist state.

    Unfortunately for the atheists, who see in him a representation of the secular against the religious monolith in Philippine culture, they have played the useful idiots. The communists have planned their fight out, and the atheists astutely play along. They have failed to figure that this attack on religion and other forms of community expression today can very well be an attack on far more personal freedoms in the future.

  8. “The moral of the story (joke)? There’s a time and a place for being dumb.”

    I like the story and it was good joke. But this was obviously imagined by an atheist to mock the theists. In a one-dimensional perspective, it emphasized the Christian and the Jew as the “dumb” characters, and the atheist, as the “smart” one. But were they really? Let’s suppose that the two God believers were dumb (which is debatable). Since the executioner believed the two condemned theists’ “divine miracle” saved them from the fatal blade of guillotine, then that makes him even “dumber”. And the atheist who told the slayer about the rock was the “dumbest” of them all. Why? The Christian and the Jew who called onto heavens actually distracted the executioner and were freed and without a scratch. While in the twinkling of an eye, the atheist’s head rolled on the ground because of his slip-of-the-tongue stupidity. It’s a cliché to say the end justified the means. However, who’s having the last laugh is anyone’s guess.

    As species with biological instinct to sustain life processes as metabolism, homeostasis, and reproduction, no happy, healthy and rational thinking human being desires to die. So what’s the moral lesson of the story (or joke)? When it’s a matter of life and death, it’s BETTER to “play dumb” for the continuance of mortal existence. So if one is actually clever, one would let the granite impede the razor-sharp cutting edge from causing blood-splattering trauma at the cervical spine to prevent instantaneous demise. Therefore, using the miracle (or coincidence) to one’s advantage to live another day is undoubtedly the SMART thing to do. 🙂

  9. On the surface, the atheists claim that they want to equalize the playing field. But deep down inside, it’s possible that what they really want is to turn the tables, be the dominant ones. “So you are dominant now? OK, we’ll dethrone you and take you over!” Despite denials that they don’t want to convert others to atheism, I think they really want that. And those who don’t follow – they might want violence against these. Because the way some atheists cite examples of religious-related conflict gives you the idea that THEY want to cause a war themselves. Heard of the term, “stooping down to the level of your enemy?”

    1. I can see that in a certain poster in the GRP community who seems so filled with hate, as if that’s the thing driving his whole life. Poor guy, get a life. hehe

  10. Now I see one reason why some atheists support Palatino’s bill. They want to lock up religion in their churches, in certain places. Prevent people from bringing them out in the open. Because it stings their eyes to see religion. Maarte lang.

    Ay naku. If seeing people practice religion pains your eyes, better gouge them out. You can’t prevent people from practicing what they hold dear.

    And no one is saying, “you atheists, practice your atheism in your own homes, not anywhere!” If that’s what you believe, you’re imagining things.

    And if the bill is passed, a minority has been pandered to, and democracy is again insulted.

    1. There are many ways that theists can go around the law. A christian bureaucrat can hang a stuffed salmon trophy in his office, and the atheists won’t even know its significance. But of course, said christian bureaucrat can always say “Dude, it’s just a fish”.

      So instead of legislating behaviors (which the Left just loves to do), why not just openly declare that God does not exist and tackle the issue head-on with the Jesuits? If the legislators were any worth their salt, they can surely always win the argument, and make points with the public at large.

  11. we should all be against any kind of faith-based religions because they encourage irrational thinking (the concept of faith,believing without requiring evidence). the idea that government time and money be spent supporting an irrational way of thinking is just wasteful

  12. I’m glad though one atheist suggested the rewording of Palatino’s bill as I did. I’m glad to know some atheists are not as overzealous as others. That gives a glimmer of hope.

  13. I think the issue lies with the basic premise that the government shall not prefer one religion over another. It means benevolent neutrality. So to have catholic icons in government institutions is in my opinion a preference of one religious tradition. Something that the constitution prohibits. Your example of erecting a religious statue outside the city hall is also the same thing, and the funding for the erection of such statue must not come from the government funds.

    The government must not adopt any religious allegiance. And Prayers and religious ceremonies sponsored by a government entity, especially Catholic Ceremonies are grave violations of that rule.

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