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This case is very memorable to me. It was the subject of one of the questions during our bar examinations in 2009. Unfortunately, I did not read the case during my review. After the examination day, my roommate discussed the gist of the case and it was then that I realized that my answer was wrong. The mistake bothered me even after the bar and until the result was announced. I eventually read the decision on the case penned by Justice Puno which is about religious freedom versus morality. The Philippines is unique because it is the only country, aside from the Vatican without a divorce law. What makes dissolution of marriages more complicated is the fact that many couples opt to be married in church which is of course also valid under the civil law. If the couple successfully obtained a declaration of nullity of their marriage from the court, they are still considered married under religious laws and vice versa. But if the church has allowed a person to live with another married person without the dissolution of their respective marriages, will they be considered living an immoral life under our administrative laws? This is the issue was resolved in the land mark case of Estrada vs. Escritor (A.M. No. P-02-1651, June 22, 2006)
Freedom vs Morality
Soledad Escritor is a court employee. A compliant was initiated against her by a certain Alejandro Estrada alleging that she should be dismissed from service on the ground of immorality because she is living with a married man- Luciano Quilapio Jr. During the series of investigations, it was found that Escritor and Quilapio had been living together for more or less 20 years before the compliant was initiated. Their respective spouses have also left them and are now living with their own partners. Escritor invoked religious freedom as her main defense. As a member of the religious sect Jehova’s Witnesses, she and Luciano executed aDeclaration Pledging Faithfulness after which the elders of the congregation now allowed them to live together as husband and wife until they obtained the proper legal remedy after which they can now marry. Since their union is perfectly acceptable among the members of the Jehova’s Witnesses, Escritor believes that she cannot be considered to be living an immoral life. The investigating judge in fact dismissed the compliant but the Court Administrator reversed and recommended that Escritor be suspended for six months.
The Supreme Court through Justice Puno gave a lengthy discussion on the case and even traced the origin of “religious freedom” from the United States jurisprudence to ours. The original case was remanded to give ample opportunity to the Solicitor General to present evidence. In the end the Court upheld Escritor’s right to religious freedom and dismissed the complaint against her. The Court decreed: “Thus, we find that in this particular case and under these distinct circumstances, respondent Escritor’s conjugal arrangement cannot be penalized as she has made out a case for exemption from the law based on her fundamental right to freedom of religion. The Court recognizes that state interests must be upheld in order that freedoms – including religious freedom – may be enjoyed. In the area of religious exercise as a preferred freedom, however, man stands accountable to an authority higher than the state, and so the state interest sought to be upheld must be so compelling that its violation will erode the very fabric of the state that will also protect the freedom. In the absence of a showing that such state interest exists, man must be allowed to subscribe to the Infinite.” At present, the House of Representatives passed a bill which aims to recognize church annulments and the controversial divorce bill. Will the Philippines join the rest of the world and leave the Vatican as the only country without a divorce law? Perhaps only time will tell.