The University of the Philippines (UP) Bonifacio Global City campus was packed with legal experts, lawyers, academic scholars, religious leaders, law students and religious-freedom advocates who participated in the Third International Forum on Law and Religion (IFLR) held in Taguig City recently.
The annual symposium, which is a first of its kind in the Philippines, centered this year’s theme “Is Religious Freedom Still Considered a Fundamental Human Right?”
IFLR seeks to provide an avenue for legal experts, academic scholars, and religious freedom advocates to share their knowledge and expertise on religious freedom issues, as well as its challenges and opportunities to help balance religious liberties and individual rights, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said in a news release.
The forum was organized by Brigham Young University (BYU) Law School, UP College of Law and the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy.
Protecting religious liberty
Prof. Gary B. Doxey, associate director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at BYU in Provo, Utah, opened the forum with a keynote message, titled “Religious Freedom and the Equal Human Dignity of All.”
In his message before over 250 participants, the former associate general counsel to the Utah Legislature emphasized the importance of protecting religious liberty.
“We can strengthen religious freedom by reinvigorating our discussion of the equal dignity of all human beings,” he said.
Doxey illustrated the decline of religious freedom by describing challenges that are occurring across the globe.
He cited that unjust separation of families, killings, slavery, religious discrimination and lack of respect are just a few of what he called the “global decline of religious freedom.”
He pointed out that the intention is not to name and blame countries and organizations that are involved but to iterate that religious persecution is far from being over.
“It’s a very real crisis,” he said. “Religious-freedom decline is real. We need to do something about it,” Doxey said, then listed some points on why there is a need to fight for the said freedom.
“The ability to enjoy religious freedom protects and strengthens other civil and political rights,” he added. To illustrate this, he compared it to a tree, with religious freedom as the root that needs to be nourished for it to bear fruit and have people enjoy it.
He pointed out that such freedom provides protection for the valuable contributions of religion to society, the news release said.
He explained: “Religion has motivated many moral advances in society, such as the elimination of slavery and civil rights. What is known to be secular freedom started because we were free to practice our religion.”
Doxey added: “We might be different, but we have one thing we have in common—respect for one another rooted from religious belief. We have a strong sense that we are equal despite our diversity in culture and religion.”
Religion and society
For his part, Ambassador Michel Goffin of the Embassy of the Kingdom of Belgium in Manila spoke about “Religion and Challenges to Social Cohesion” at the plenary session.
Goffin shared that religion is important in order to understand how society can stabilize.
“Religion, tolerance and acceptance are indicators of social cohesion,” he said.
A true believer in UN and multilateral affairs, the ambassador shared examples that explained why the line of true separation between religion and state remains vague.
“Separation of religion and governance is probably a very complex issue,” he said. “But there’s one thing we can focus on…that is FORB: Freedom of Religion or Belief is really the base for every society to be able to live together. There is an absolute essential dimension in any country. FORB has to be ensured. It is not complicated. It’s not complex. It’s just essential.”
The Belgian ambassador also expressed the need to consider different degrees of religious liberty, such as the right to change religion.
Goffin iterated, “Freedom of religion is not just a right that you can either have or not have in your society. It’s linked to all fundamental rights a society should abide by, including gender equality and freedom of expression.”
Ambassador Goffin said absolute separation of government and religion is not the key to stability. Although he expressed that such is ideal, he advised that there are many approaches that should not be pursued.
He reaffirmed his commitment to pursue freedom of religion or belief before his diplomatic assignments in different countries end. “This is an essential dimension for the stability of societies,” he said, as quoted by the news release.
Law and religion in the Philippines
Meanwhile, Commissioner Gwendolyn Pimentel-Gana of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), at the closing plenary session focused her message on the “Interface of Law and Religion,” in the Philippine context.
She shared examples of court cases wherein the free exercise of religious beliefs were handled by the courts and how the justice system protected it.
“Our Constitution ensures and mandates an unconditional tolerance without regard to whether those who seek to profess their faith belong to the majority or to the minority. It is emphatic in saying that the free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship shall be without discrimination or preference,” Gana pointed out.
The focal commissioner of the Policy Office of the CHR added that religious beliefs are a major part of the lives of Filipinos which are manifested in the customs, behaviors and practices of its people.
“From these, the Philippines’s policy is one of tolerance and nondiscrimination for religious beliefs unless they will bring harm to the common good and for which the state can intervene.”
Gana reiterated that the right to worship or belief remains a universal human right, the news release said.
Six special sessions were conducted during the conference, where speakers shared their expertise on different topics. Among the resource speakers were:
Atty. Neri S. Colmenares, president of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers; Tess Bacalla, executive director of the Southeast Asia Press Alliance; Marc Viestraete-Verlinde, counsellor of the European Union Delegation to Indonesia and Brunei Darussalam; Dr. Al Makin, PhD, director of the Center for Research and Community Development at the Sunnan Kalijaga State Islamic University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia;
Amina R. Bernardo, president of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy; Alma R. Jimenez, executive vice president of the Asean Society Philippines; Atty. Mikhail Lee Maxino, director for the Jovito Salonga Center for Law and Development at the Silliman University; Dr. Brian Gozun, PhD, dean of the College of Business at the De La Salle University-Manila; Fr. Angel Calvo, president, Peace Advocates Zamboanga;
Dr. Jenny Lind Elmaco, PhD, secretary-general of the Association for Christian Universities and Colleges in Asia; Atty. Nasser Marohomsalic, former commissioner of the Commission on Human Rights; Prof. Elizabeth Pulumbarit, director of the Paralegal Program of the UP Law Center; and Atty. Carlo Vistan II, director of the Office of Legal Aid of UP.