Selling the drama

Reproductive rights activist Carlos Celdran

Reproductive rights activist Carlos Celdran

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A more valid argument is that the law is outdated and absurd.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, 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.


4 responses to “Selling the drama

  1. this gives us the opportunity to look closely into art. 133, and other laws that serve as criterion to regulate speech. granted what Celdran did was rude, wouldn’t laws against disruption of peace suffice? article 133 is a law that makes it illegal to OFFEND. it legitimizes attacks against people who express their dissenting opinions in non-violent, non-destructive ways. we already have laws that safeguard one’s right to practice religion in a reserved, safe space. that should be enough. Why should religious sentiments and places be accorded special protection?

  2. Hello, hellowafers

    That’s right. We should look into Art.133 and see if it should still be in our laws. If it shouldn’t be, then let’s lobby to strike it out.

    Does Art.133 prohibit having and expressing dissent? I guess it does, but only under specific circumstances. Wouldn’t the Manila Cathedral count as a “a reserved, safe space” where one can practice one’s religion?

    I am having trouble agreeing with the proposition that going into a place of worship and disrupting an activity there that people were voluntarily participating in should be okay.

    I don’t think that’s what you’re saying either. Only that some other charge–one that has nothing to do with religion–should have been filed against Celdran for his stunt.

    I wonder, though, whether people would not have gotten angry anyway if Celdran had been charged with trespassing (or something) instead of offending religious feelings. Wouldn’t the filing of any charges have been seen as a curtailment of his freedom of expression anyway?

    I have also been wondering about how Celdran’s stunt was acceptable, and even commendable, but Anakbayan’s recent storming and disruption of an Akbayan press conference was apparently not.

    What do you think?

  3. in the absence of Art. 133, my guess is that he will be tried for violating other laws (perhaps disturbing the peace, or slander by deed?), and people will continue to discuss and debate against or for his case. that is perfectly fine. as US President Obama put it, “…the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech — the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.” debate and discussion are perhaps the most popular, most accessible tools for refining ideas, and in this process of refinement, offended feelings are commonplace. laws that criminalize the act of offending feelings in whatever venue should be subject to scrutiny. they could end up being dangerously repressive.

    this is not to say that what Celdran did was ok. I agree that Celdran misbehaved. there is no question about it. he deserves to be fined for being, at most, a nuisance. but to throw him in jail, and curtail ALL of his freedom an entire year? i find the idea chilling.

    • I like that you quoted US President Obama and that the quote is one I have read before.

      I get what you are saying. Things like feelings and being offended are vague and so laws against offending feelings could be used to silence dissent. But certainly not all dissent?

      (Some people online have warned that what happened to Celdran could happen to any of us. I do not think that is accurate at all.)

      Would the threat of having to pay a fine deter someone from going into a place of worship and causing a ruckus? Should something like that be prevented in the first place?

      This piece says otherwise (and says it well):

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