Does one incident make a trend, one swallow a spring– or a rally attended by clerics “creeping theocracy”?

Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago says yes, the prayer rally last Friday that police attacked with water cannon being, in her view, an attempt to violate the law by using religion as cover.

“No religion,” said Santiago, “can serve to camouflage disobedience of the law by invoking freedom of religion. That would be creeping theocracy.”

The law Santiago was referring to is Batas Pambansa 880, the Public Assembly Act of 1985. This Marcos-era Act requires the leaders of demonstrations and similar public assemblies to obtain permits from local government officials. It gives the police the power to designate the routes of processions, rallies and demonstrations, and authorizes their dispersal if the police think them likely to turn violent.

What about theocracy, on the other hand, and the adjective “creeping” Santiago attached to it? Any dictionary of the English language will tell you that “theocracy” is the rule of a god or gods through priests or clerics. “Creeping,” on the other hand, means a gradual development brought about by a series of acts.

Batas Pambansa 880 might have been, 20 years ago when it was passed, liberal in coverage and intent. Among its authors was Senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr., who over television said recently that he was surprised when the KBL (Kilusang Bagong Lipunan—Ferdinand Marcos’ party) majority in the then Batasang Pambansa (National Legislature) passed it.

As surprised as Pimentel was then, why the bill became law now seems obvious. Still in force in changed circumstances, it restricts freedom of assembly, despite a 1987 Constitutional ban on laws infringing on that right. It gives local governments the prerogative to grant or withhold permits, and the police broad discretionary powers.

Last Friday’s (October 14) dispersal via water cannon of some participants in the prayer rally led by three Catholic Church bishops is thus being justified because the group of demonstrators targeted deviated from the rally route, and supposedly could have become violent. Never mind that the group was led by men in their 60s and 70s including former Vice President Teofisto Guingona.

What’s obvious besides its being used to justify dispersing demonstrations is that BP 880 is in violation of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. But Santiago and some lawyers would probably say that whatever the law is, it is the law. This view would make unjust laws permanent fixtures of the social landscape by compelling those who would challenge them to keep silent.

Meanwhile, even if we grant that the October 14 rally was an attempt to use religion to violate a law that’s likely to be unconstitutional, one incident does not make for a creeping anything. A series of acts does.

“Creeping martial law” has a credible ring to it because a series of acts and policies—its “Calibrated Preemptive Response” policy; Executive Orders 454 and 464; the killing of political activists in the countryside, etc.– by the regime Santiago favors points precisely to a process leading to authoritarian rule. If Santiago saw “creeping theocracy” in one incident, how would she, in all honesty, describe the policies, acts and statements of the current Malacanang occupant, her Executive Secretary, Secretary of Justice and other officials?

An even more interesting question is whether some kind of theocracy is already here, regardless of what a few aging bishops, nuns and priests think, say and do. One could argue that indeed a theocracy of some kind already exists in this country—but thanks primarily to likes of Santiago and Gloria Macapagal- Arroyo.

It may not be an open rule of clerics, but it’s close. Arroyo has adopted a family planning policy based on Catholic Church doctrine, which forbids the use of artificial means of contraception. She’s seen in practically every El Shaddai rally where she can squeeze some political advantage from. And it’s no secret either that she’s courted and won the support of a certain sect whose power is based on so-called “command votes” that run into several millions.

But hers is not too unusual a case. Practically every candidate kneels before priest and bishop in the hope that he or she will be blessed at the polls. Every president this country has ever had bows to the influence of the Churches in Philippine politics and governance in some form or another. And God is right there in every government office where Sto.Nino and Virgin Mary statues are prominently displayed within spitting distance of the desks of even the most notorious bribe-takers in the bureaucracy.

These make the separation of church and state practically meaningless. But Santiago cites that principle now and then to castigate the clergy for engaging in politics, though only whenever the clerics involved are critical of whatever regime Santiago is currently supporting. Thus are certain Dominican priests and other personages such as Mike Velarde exempt from her accent and homilies about the law she claims to champion.

Few now remember the charge that Santiago was inciting people to rebellion when she allegedly urged former President Joseph Estrada’s minions on May Day Eve 2001 to besiege Malacanang and throw Arroyo out. The law then was nowhere to be found, having been consigned to the murky depths of some demented mind.

(Business Mirror)

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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