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In Defense of Offense (on Religious Feelings)?

October 4, 2010

One might has to ask the CBCP if Carlos Celdran making this photo his Facebook profile pic adds to the offense

Google “offending religious feelings Philippines” these days and all search results point to the now-infamous incident wherein tour operator/reproductive rights advocate Carlos Celdran went Rizal on a group of Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) members during a homily at the Manila Cathedral last Thursday. Celdran was promptly escorted out the church after blatantly alluding to the national hero’s abusive Padre Damaso character in his novel Noli Me Tangere. The question probably asked of law students by their professors after the incident: did Celdran commit the crime?

One looks first to the Revised Penal Code’s definition of “offending religious feelings” as a punishable crime:

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.

Like all crimes, this one requires malicious intent. And it is the faithful’s feelings that are used as a barometer of whether the acts are offensive. The question is, therefore: is parading around as Rizal and likening the bishops present to Padre Damaso “notoriously offensive”? Is exclaiming “stop getting involved in politics”?

The lawyers can fight it out, but one plan of attack on Team Celdran is to question the applicability of the law. Celdran himself was quoted as saying Article 133 was a “19th century law” designed to combat blasphemy. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time a crime in the Revised Penal Code was accused of being outdated: the laws on libel were deemed so in 2007 when the Senate moved to decriminalize it. Not coincidentally, advocates of the move cited new norms in giving premium to freedoms of expression and information.

The CBCP has stated in rebuttal that “These actions cannot by any means be considered within the purview of freedom of expression. Instead they were malicious acts directed towards a Faith, a Religion that was represented by its leaders and the faithful gathered.” On the question of which wins out in a freedom of speech versus freedom of religion battle, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said a anti-defamation policies breed intolerance.

Although it might not be a crime defined in the same words, offending religious feelings has been alleged of so-called violators around the world, from Pope-costume-donning revelers in Malta to writing about the prophet Muhammad in a sexual light in India. Whether the religious are justified in being outraged or should toughen up their hides, and what limits should be put on either, are not an easy question to answer. For now, Celdran feels justified in his message but somewhat regrets the method – if that saves him from Article 133 conviction, we’ll find out in the coming days.

Keep reading Expat Newspaper for the latest updates.

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