No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor shall any person be denied the equal protection of the laws. (Section 1, Article III, 1987 Constitution) Equal protection under the law is one of the hallmarks of a democratic society where everyone regardless of age, sex, creed, status in life, pedigree, or cultural practices enjoy the protection of the state. This is of course very ideal. Something that we as a society have to work hard to achieve. In fairness, we have come a long long way and we just look back at slavery and the absence of voting rights of women as dark moments in our history. The colonization of nations and the ill treatment of indigenous people have once again surfaced in recent days due to the killing of an African-American man in the United States. Discrimination is abhorred in today’s society but it has not yet gone away completely. Our culture, language, laws, and beliefs still retain some traces of it. But it is in fact legal! Of course the distinction should rest on valid grounds. This concept was tested during the American occupation of the Philippines in Baguio City where the Supreme Court upheld the validity of law that prohibits any “non-Christian tribe” members from possessing and drinking liquor.
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People vs. Cayat
Act No. 1639 prohibits Non-Christian Tribes (indigenous people) from possessing and drinking “other than the so-called native wines and liquors which the members of such tribes have been accustomed themselves to make” (G.R. No. L-45987). On 25 January 1937 Cayat was arrested in Baguio for possessing a bottle of A-1-1 gin. Since it was not a “native wine”, Cayat was tried and convicted in the Court of First instance in Baguio for violation of Act 1639 and was sentenced to pay a fine of 50 pesos or suffer subsidiary imprisonment in case he is unable to pay the fine. Sinai Hamada defended Cayat all the way to the Supreme Court and argued on behalf of all the Non-Christian Tribes and challenged the constitutionality of Act 1639 on the following grounds: “1. It is discriminatory and denies the equal protection of the laws; 2. It is violative of the due process clause of the Constitution; and 3. t is improper exercise of the police power of the state”.
Many of us will cringe reading the decision of the Supreme Court. The Court declared that the said law is constitutional and therefore Cayat should be held liable for violating it. The law is not discriminatory since the “non-christian tribes” are still in the process of being “civilised” by the government and the passage of the law ensures “their rapid and steady march to civilization and culture” said the SC. Besides, a law which distinguishes is not at all invalid for as long as the classification rests on “real or substantial distinction”. According to the Court, the non-Christian tribes being “of a low grade of civilization” are clearly distinct from the “civilised Christians”. There is a need to pass the law because “the free use of highly intoxicating liquors by the non-Christian tribes have often resulted in lawlessness and crimes” and allowing them to drink will just hamper the process of civilising them. The SC went on to say that the law “is designed to promote peace and order in the non-Christian tribes so as to remove all obstacles to their moral and intellectual growth and, eventually, to hasten their equalization and unification with the rest of their Christian brothers”. As a consolation, the High Court concluded the decision is not meant to delegate non-Christians as “an inferior or less capable race”. The Tribunal recognised that there are members of the tribes who are now professionals occupying government positions in the US and the Philippines. In the end, the Court admits that it is powerless to make a determination whether the “inequality” still exists to warrant the invalidation of the law. The power rests upon the legislature alone.
Absurd as it may be, the case of People vs. Cayat is still being used by courts and lawyers up to the present with respect to the validity of distinctions by our laws. Its a good thing Act 1639 is no longer being implemented but Covid-19 necessitated the curtailment of this favorite past-time.
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