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MANILA, Philippines – The Senate bill seeking to penalize discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression (SOGIE) has been reverted to the committee level after Senate Majority Leader Joel Villanueva presented piles of letters from concerned religious groups at the Senate session on Wednesday, February 8.
Villanueva showed the letters from various religious groups who claimed they were not consulted during the technical working group meetings, or that they wanted more chances to participate in the discussions on the proposed measure.
The senator belongs to the religious group Jesus is Lord Movement, which was founded by his father Eddie Villanueva, a chief critic of the SOGIE bill.
The SOGIE anti-discrimination bill hurdled the Senate committee on women, children, family relations, and gender equality on December 6, 2022, with the committee report signed by 19 senators. Once a bill passes the committee level, the next step is for it to be sponsored at the Senate plenary.
“It has to be noted that after the committee on women, children, family, relations, and gender equality submitted Committee Report No. 15 on December 6, 2022, letters from concerned religious groups were sent not only to this representation, Madame President…. All these letters would not be enough. I can’t even bring it here because it’s too many,” Villanueva said.
Villanueva said “17 or 18” senators came together to sign a letter asking for the religious sector to be “given a chance to participate.” He said that an option would be to refer the bill to the committee on rules, which he chairs, for further study.
Senator Risa Hontiveros, SOGIE bill author and committee on women chair, yielded to having more consultations on the bill, but said this should still be done under her committee, and not the committee on rules.
Senate President Pro Tempore Loren Legarda, who is also an author of a version of the SOGIE bill, pressed Villanueva to commit that the bill “will not languish” in his committee.
“I want to confirm this with the Majority Leader, so that as we decide now, and I as one of the authors and advocates as well of this bill, will be assured by the Majority Leader that when we recommit it to your committee, that it will not languish in your committee. But instead, after thorough study, on a certain timeline, it will be recommitted to the committee on women and gender equality so that further hearings may ensue,” said Legarda.
Villanueva responded, “I can commit that I will hear it in the committee on rules, but it is not just this representation who will decide on whatever the committee on rules will do, Madame President.”
Legarda expressed concern that the bill could stay in the rules committee for several months or a year, asking, “It is never the intention of the good Majority Leader to just let it languish in your committee?”
“Of course not,” Villanueva said, noting that the two members of the minority, Hontiveros and Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III, were both in the rules committee. Villanueva eventually moved for the referral of the bill to the rules committee, which Legarda accepted.
Villanueva also said that he had “nothing against” the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual+ (LGBTQIA+) community.
Hontiveros: ‘Huwag na sana nating ipagkait sa kanila ito’
The SOGIE bill, which seeks to shield the LGBTQIA+ community from discrimination, has been languishing in Congress for over two decades. Then-senator Miriam Defensor Santiago and then-Akbayan representative Etta Rosales introduced the bill in 2000, under the 11th Congress.
Hontiveros said that for over two decades, lawmakers have always listened to and engaged with religious groups. She mentioned some of the concessions the committee made in line with religious groups’ recommendations:
- Inclusion of an explicit exemption of marriage licenses in the provision on licenses, to clarify that the bill does not legalize gay marriages
- Addition of an explicit inclusion of the principle of academic freedom
- The non-disturbance of parental responsibility in the Family Code
- Agreement to reconsider criminal liabilities on schools that impose heteronormative uniform requirements, and on parents who seek medical tests to determine the SOGIE of their children
Meanwhile, these were the prohibited acts that the committee was hard on keeping:
- Workplace prohibition
- Expulsion from schools on the basis of SOGIE, as “this is not in accord with the best interest of the child”
- Discrimination in access to emergency and necessary health services
- SOGIE-based abuse against persons deprived of liberty
- Discrimination in access to social protection instruments, like cash aid
Hontiveros said she was willing to keep engaging and listening to religious groups “in good faith, and I can engage with those who speak from a place of faith or religion, being a woman of faith myself, Madame President.”
“But I was voted by the Republic to pass secular laws. Laws that protect the least of us. Laws that reflect our commitments to international law and to human rights norms. I hope you agree with me that the oppressions that beset our LGBTQIA+ community are real, documented, and undeniable. Huwag na sana nating ipagkait sa kanila ito (Let us not keep this from them),” she said.
Over at the House of Representatives that same day, Villanueva’s father, CIBAC Representative Bro. Eddie Villanueva walked out of a House panel hearing on the SOGIE bill after his request to defer the hearing was denied.