Philippine Dept. of Education acknowledges separation of Church and State to theists’ dismay

In recent news, the Department of Education removed the words “God-loving” from their Vision Statement, thanks to the efforts and representation made by a secularist free-thought organization, the Filipino Freethinkers.

And as was expected, some religious groups immediately rang the alarm bells, viewing this simple acknowledgement of other peoples’ freedom of thought and belief as an assault on what they consider to be the Philippines’ core values (read: their OWN theistic beliefs).

The Christian Convergence for Good Governance put out their opinion on the issue:

In a department order (No. 36) issued last September 4, 2013, the DepEd released its new statement that reads as follows: “We dream of Filipinos who passionately love their country and whose values and competencies enable them to realize their full potential and contribute meaningfully to building the nation.” In comparison, the old vision statement more directly reflects the intrinsic faith majority of Filipinos have for the Divine (emphasis mine). It reads as “By 2030, DepEd is globally recognized for good governance and for developing functionally-literate and God-loving Filipinos.”

Incidentally, the change was made in the midst of a request from a group of atheists in the Philippines called as the “Filipino Freethinkers.” In an open letter dated February 5 of last year, the group denounced the mentions of “God-loving” in DepEd’s Vision statement and “Maka-Diyos” as one of the department’s Core Values. Seeing it as a violation of the “principle of secularism” and of the “separation of church and state” enshrined in the Phil. Constitution, the open letter demanded that DepEd removed the said references to God or replace it with secular counterparts. DepEd promptly responded in Twitter, a social networking site, that review is on its way and a new vision statement shall be released soon.

The atheist group is also actively demanding the removal of similar religious references in government offices and properties. A case, for example is the mention of God in the P100 peso bill “Pinagpala ang bayan na ang Diyos ay Panginoon” and in the P500 peso bill “faith in our people and faith in God.”

The said department order is set to stir controversy as it is a stark departure from the government’s long practice of respect for the religious sensibility of the Filipino people. The Preamble of the Constitution of the Philippines itself does not reflect secularism as held by the atheist group and on the contrary boldly implored “the aid of the Almighty God.”

In principle, the law of the land ought to reflect the shared aspirations and values of its people. In a country with a population of 80% Christians and 5% Muslims, in which both faith traditions expressing strong belief in God and the need for godly values, the recent move of the DedEd appears to run contrary to religious nature and culture of Filipinos. The implications of the department order would be felt by the future generation -students DedEd is tasked to serve.

Dennis Sy, the pastor of Victory Christian Fellowship Greenhills and author of the blog “Act Like A Man,” posted his own take on the DepEd’s decision:

This is a case of being pressured to have an institution change its VISION and VALUES to accommodate a group and in the process neglecting the prevailing values of society. If a group decides that they don’t want God, that is their problem and not the problem of our constitution. Because if we keep on changing who we are and what we value to accommodate a group – then when will this end?

If a group of  people would make a case that their belief must be put there because it is discriminatory – will we change our constitution for that. If a group of animal lovers would make a case- will the vision and constitution change? I hope you get what I am saying.

In short, a group of people doesn’t want God, and I am not against them not wanting God that is their right as a Filipino, but for them to pressure us to change who we are (according to the  1987 preamble of the constitution) – that is being intolerant and discriminatory. So what I’m saying is I don’t have a problem that they have a problem with the God that I worship – the problem is if they want to dictate and change the government and the words in our constitution. […]

As a Christian nation, we have to start shouting what we stand for and not let a few change the  agreed upon constitution and values of our nation.

In his own comments section, Mr. Sy’s arguments are picked apart by participants, prompting him to try to wriggle out of his original position by saying that his true complaint was about DepEd’s lack of “due process,” while continuing to insist that the Constitution affirms all Filipinos’ belief in God.

Now, Mr. Sy seems to be a well-educated man, as a product of one of the most expensive private schools in the Philippines. On top of this, he has even written two books that have landed on the Amazon Kindle bestseller list, and is presumably enjoying success as the head of a young, thriving, and wealthy religious community in Greenhills.

And yet, despite all this, neither his wealth nor his educational attainment seem to have provided Mr. Sy with any appreciation for the pluralistic values on which the country’s democracy is founded. Nor do they account for his ignorance of the relevant portion of the Philippine Bill of Rights on the non-establishment of religion:

Article III, Section 5 of the Bill of Rights: “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.”

Or perhaps it’s not ignorance. Judging by Mr. Sy’s reaction in his own comments section, the more plausible (and scarier) explanation is that he simply doesn’t even want to understand what true respect for minorities’ rights entails. The exact same conclusion can be drawn about the Christian Convergence for Good Governance, in their stated preference for the older DepEd vision statement that “reflects the intrinsic faith majority (sic) of Filipinos have for the Divine”.

These are just sad examples of a much bigger problem that besets overwhelmingly-religious countries like the Philippines: these people, simply put, have almost never been exposed to people who disagree with them.

News flash for theists like Mr. Sy: Not everyone thinks like you.

Respect for a pluralistic society is enshrined in the Constitution. The Philippines has no official state religion. Therefore, no government agency has the mandate to proselytize on behalf of any faith (or non-faith). Hindi naman mahirap intindihin, eh.

Andy Uyboco, a member of the Filipino Freethinkers who writes a regular atheist column for the Sun Star, posted a concise rebuttal to Mr. Sy’s article.

According [to] Fr. Joaquin Bernas, S.J., one of the foremost authorities on our Constitution, the non-establishment clause prohibits both direct and indirect aid to religion if the support involves “preference of one religion over another or preference of religion over irreligion.” (from The 1987 Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines: A Commentary by Joaquin G. Bernas, S.J. 2009 Edition, page 345.) […]

[W]hat you are proposing is simply a bully-mentality — that because there are more of you, then it is your whims and desires that should be followed. Let me ask you then, if 85%of the Filipinos would favor slavery, would you not speak out against it? Would you quietly sit in your little corner of the country and acquiesce to the desire of the majority?

Besides, your claim that a “minority” group has exerted this pressure is laughable. Who has more power to exert pressure — a minority group or a majority one? You are like a 200-pound bully complaining that a 90-pound weakling has pushed you into a corner.

It looks like the 90-pound weakling is punching well above his weight.

It is my hope that skirmishes like these in the culture war between secularists and religious conservatives will lead to something better for the country. The key lies in raising peoples’ awareness of pluralistic values, and showing them that non-believers do not just have the right to exist, but also the right to speak their minds and influence the public debate. Just like anyone else in a pluralistic society.

As long as secular humanists and like-minded people of faith keep pushing against the close-minded opposition, then the newer generations will see non-believers and believers alike for what they essentially are: fellow humans.

As it stands, though, I can probably guess the theists’ next strategy: playing the victim card.

(Next blog post: On the bigotry of Catholic dogma)

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