On Monday, Metropolitan Trial Court Branch 4 found tour guide and reproductive health rights activist Carlos Celdran guilty of violating Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code, or “offending the religious feelings.”
He had, MeTC Judge Juan Bermejo Jr. ruled, performed “acts notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful” when he interrupted an ecumenical service in 2010 while holding up a sign that said “Damaso” (for Padre Damaso in Noli Me Tangere in case anyone missed it) and shouting that priests should stay out of politics. [EDIT: Corrected sentence because Celdran meant priests should stay out of politics, not just the ones who shout.]
Within minutes of the news breaking, Celdran supporters on Twitter began a hashtag #FreeCarlosCeldran to decry the trampling of freedom of expression.
One Twitter user even argued, and this is the least credible of the arguments raised against conviction : “So if Carlos Celdran is guilty of offending religious feelings, should be precedent for Muslims to sue Lechon places…”
The logic, apparently, is that anything that offends religious feelings is punishable by Article 133. Muslims, the argument seems to go, do not eat pork and eating pork is offensive to them and therefore, they can sue.
But that is not what Article 133 is for:
Art. 133. Offending the religious feelings. — The penalty of arresto mayor in its maximum period to prision correccional in its minimum period shall be imposed upon anyone who, in a place devoted to religious worship or during the celebration of any religious ceremony shall perform acts notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful. (Chan Robles virtual law library)
Unless some enterprising (and foolish) litsonero decides to try to corner the niche Muslim market for lechon by setting up shop in a mosque, the law probably does not apply. Neither does it apply to feelings that have been hurt by insensitive lovers, straying significant others, or philandering husbands. It’s funny to say things like that online. Offering them as arguments is also funny, but for different reasons.
A more valid argument is that the law is outdated and absurd. Like prohibiting duels (if you are ever in a duel and you kill your opponent, you will go to prison), the law belongs in a different Philippines, when the Catholic Church was more influential than we now say it should have been and when people settled slights to their honor through duels instead of “talking it out”.
Human Rights Watch has said Celdran’s conviction “is a setback for free speech in the Philippines, which prides itself on being a democracy.” And it very well may be, but the law gives the religious the recourse to file charges when people perform “notoriously offensive” acts in their place of worship or during their religious ceremonies. Freeing Celdran would do little to change that and how it affects free speech.
Until Article 133 is repealed, it’s the law and we cannot just pick and choose the laws that we want to apply. We can ignore the law sometimes, but there are consequences that we have to face when we are caught. We either have laws or we don’t. We cannot, for example, demand accountability of our public officials but shirk our own accountability.
It is, of course, unfair that some priests accused of pedophilia and other acts of sexual harassment do not stand trial. It is also unfair that judgment has yet to be passed on suspects in the Ampatuan massacre.
But that is neither here nor there. It highlights deficiencies in the justice system, but does not make him, at least for now, less guilty of committing a crime. That crime is not of having an opinion different from the Catholic Church, but of expressing that opinion in a manner that offended “the feelings of the faithful.” He will appeal the decision, and it is his right to do so.
Celdran, in an interview on InterAksyon.com, says “the issue is bigger than me now…It’s about religion. Anything that one does that might be offending to his or her own religion could put him or her in jail.”
That is not, strictly speaking, true. The law only counts offensive acts in a place of worship or during religious ceremonies. And is that so wrong? The religious have as much a right to practice their faith as we do to be atheists, agnostics, secularists, or lazy.
If we are now saying that it is all right to go into places of worship and impose our views on the people who choose to agree with what their religion teaches them, then let’s pressure Congress to repeal Article 133. Until then, though, what Celdran did was a criminal offence and no number of hashtags and online jokes will change that.