SC: Comelec can’t order removal of church’s anti-RH tarps

Buena Bernal
The Supreme Court rules the Comelec violated the church's right to free speech, expression, and property in taking down the 'Team Patay' tarpaulins
VICTORY. The Bacolod Diocese wins its fight against the Comelec before the Supreme Court. Photo by Charlie Saceda/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – The Supreme Court (SC) has ruled as unconstitutional the order of the election commission in 2013 to remove a Catholic cathedral’s tarpaulins in Bacolod City campaigning against candidates who supported the reproductive health (RH) law and endorsing those who opposed the measure.

The names of senatorial candidates who were pro-RH were listed as “Team Patay (Team of Death),” while the names of those who, like the Catholic Church, opposed the law allowing state funding for contraceptions, were listed as “Team Buhay (Team of Life).”

In its en banc session Wednesday, January 21, the SC ruled that the Commission on Elections (Comelec) violated the church’s right to free speech, expression, and property in ordering the take-down of the tarpaulins. (READ: Diocese defies Comelec on Team Patay posters)

“The Comelec has no power to regulate the free expression of private citizens, who are neither candidates nor members of political parties,” SC spokesman Theodore Te said in a press briefing, explaining the SC decision.

In ordering the tarpaulins’ removal on February 27, 2013, the Comelec said the two tarpaulins violated rules on election campaign materials for being oversized.

The initial tarpaulin was approximately 6 feet by 10 feet in size and was spliced in two to accommodate the Comelec-prescribed size of 2 feet by 3 feet.

Within public view, they were hang on the San Sebastian Cathedral inside a private housing compound in Bacolod.

The SC in March 2013 temporarily prevented the Comelec from taking down the tarpaulins.

Comelec considered the tarpaulins election campaign materials, but the Bacolod diocese maintains the materials are part of the church campaign against the then-impending RH law.

“The fact that it is the election period is only incidental to this fight. With or without national or local elections, the diocese [will] oppose the RH law until it is repealed or adequately amended or modified,” said Bacolod Diocese’s lawyer Mitchelle Abella.

The RH law, which was declared constitutional by the SC but with some parts revoked, requires government health centers to hand out free condoms and birth control pills. It also mandates that sex education be taught in schools.

The SC considered the content of the tarpaulin as not merely religious speech even if it is written or ordered to be written by church officials. 

Penned by Associated Justice Marvic Leonen, the decision was concurred by Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, associate justices Antonio Carpio, Teresita Leonardo-De Catsro, Diosdado Peralta, Mariano del Castillo, Jose Mendoza, Bienvenido Reyes, and Estela Perlas-Bernabe.

Dissenters include Associate Justices Presbitero Velasco Jr, Arturo Brion, Lucas Bersamin, Jose Perez, and Martin Villarama Jr. 

Francis Jardeleza, the newest SC justice, inhibited due to his previous position as solicitor general.

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