Round 1 of the tarp war goes to the Church.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday stopped the Commission on Elections (Comelec) from enforcing an order for the diocese of Bacolod to take down from the San Sebastian Cathedral an oversized tarpaulin for and against certain senatorial candidates on the basis of their stand on the reproductive health measure that became law.
The high court’s temporary restraining order (TRO) came as the Church’s Episcopal Commission on Family and Life announced that other archdioceses and dioceses like Tarlac (President Aquino’s home province), Lipa, Borongan, Sorsogon and Kidapawan would put up similar posters.
The head of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) welcomed the Supreme Court order.
“This is the work of the Supreme Court. Because we are law-abiding citizens in the land, we should be law-abiding people. If that is what the Supreme Court said, sorry na lang sa Comelec,” said Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma, CBCP president.
The high tribunal granted the petition of the diocese of Bacolod for a TRO in its en banc session. Supreme Court spokesperson Theodore Te said the high court asked the poll body to comment on the petition of the diocese within 10 days.
In addition, the Supreme Court scheduled oral arguments for March 19 in Manila, according to Te.
Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr. said he welcomed the move since it would once and for all settle the issue whether the election body can regulate oversized election propaganda.
But Brillantes was also anxious about the TRO’s effect on the commission’s implementation of campaign rules.
“What I feel is that, it might encourage others to come out with all these illegal propaganda,” he told reporters following an en banc meeting of the Comelec.
Brillantes said he would not be surprised if all churches across the country would take a leaf from the diocese of Bacolod by putting up similar illegally sized posters and the Comelec would be rendered powerless.
Last week, the diocese and Bacolod Bishop Vicente Navarra filed an urgent petition for certiorari and prohibition, asking the high court to declare the Comelec order unconstitutional and void.
They also sought a TRO and/or a writ of preliminary injunction to stop the Comelec and Bacolod election officer Mavil V. Majarucon-Sia from enforcing the order.
Majarucon-Sia issued on Feb. 22 a notice asking the diocese to remove the tarpaulin as this was oversized and violated Comelec regulations on election propaganda materials.
But the diocese did not comply, prompting the Comelec legal department to issue an order on Feb. 27 reiterating its call for the diocese to remove the tarpaulin or else it would be charged with an election offense.
In its petition, the diocese said the Comelec order was unconstitutional as it infringed on the Church freedom of expression and violated the principle of separation of Church and State.
The diocese said it was just exercising its freedom of expression and conscience in putting up the tarpaulin which stated its position against the reproductive health (RH) law.
Bishop Navarra earlier said the “Team Patay/Team Buhay” tarpaulin would remain at the cathedral and would even be replicated in churches throughout the diocese.
The tarpaulin got much flak from the administration party as it tagged senatorial candidates for the RH law as Team Patay (Death) and those against the law as Team Buhay (Life).
Seven senatorial candidates on Team Patay are Juan Edgardo Angara, Francis Escudero, Loren Legarda, Alan Peter Cayetano, Risa Hontiveros, Teddy Casiño and Jack Enrile. Except for Casiño and Enrile, all the candidates are from the administration.
Also on the Team Patay list are party-list groups Gabriela, Bayan Muna, Akbayan and Anakpawis.
On the Team Buhay list are Joseph Victor Ejercito-Estrada, Antonio Trillanes IV, Gregorio Honasan, Mitos Magsaysay, Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel and Cynthia Villar.
‘Just the size’
Brillantes reiterated that the Comelec had no issue over the content of the tarpaulin. “It’s just the size of the tarpaulin,” he said.
“This has nothing to do with religion. It is more of an enforcement of an election law provision. This has no relationship on religion … I am even surprised that they are talking about separation of Church and State, freedom of expression and religion when our argument is merely the size,” he added.
But Brillantes described the TRO as a “good action” so that “we settle once and for all the issue, whether we are correct or that we cannot regulate oversized posters.”
He, however, said he did not expect the Supreme Court to act on Navarra’s petition merely on the basis of the letters sent by the election officer in Bacolod and the commission’s law department.
“Procedurally, I am really surprised because I got a copy of [their] petition and they were questioning the notice of our election officer and the letter of Director (Esmeralda) Ladra,” Brillantes said.
“The Comelec [en banc] has not yet issued an order, there is no resolution or order on the matter,” he noted.
“Anyway, since this is the Supreme Court speaking, we just have to abide by it. But we have to see first what are the specific matters that we are being restrained [to do],” he added.
During the oral arguments, the Comelec will raise whether the tarpaulin mounted on the facade of the cathedral was election propaganda material, he said.
“If it is, then it is oversized and it doesn’t have the necessary printing,” he said, noting that for the tarpaulin to be considered lawful, it must indicate that it was “printed for” the candidates.
The Comelec might raise during the oral arguments Section 261 of the Omnibus Election Code prohibiting, among other things, any religious organization from coercing or intimidating or influencing members or parishioners to vote for or against any candidate.
“We will probably raise it during the oral arguments… there are also other violations but [mainly] we are just talking about the sizes,” he said.
Fr. Melvin Castro, executive secretary of the Episcopal Commission on Family and Life, said the diocese of Tarlac decided to put up posters in all its 52 parishes and chapels to inform voters who among the senatorial candidates voted for or against the RH measure.
The posters will be installed before March 14, when administration candidates are expected to visit the province, according to Castro.
‘Raring to go to war’
“This is a decision of our lay faithful. The ordinary faithful are raring to go to war, thanks to the RH law. There is now a groundswell,” Castro said at a Church forum in Intramuros, Manila.
“The more they try to stop this, the more it will spread,” he added.
Castro said other archdioceses and dioceses like Lipa, Borongan, Sorsogon and Kidapawan were also planning to put up Team Patay posters.
“This is to show that the diocese of Bacolod is not alone in this fight and that the struggle against the RH law continues. The struggle will go on because the agenda behind the RH law is depopulation and population control,” Castro said.
“In the end, there might even be sample ballots and in Lipa, you can confirm this with the archbishop there,” he added.
Lipa Archbishop Ramon Arguelles was one of the most vocal opponents of the RH law when it was still being debated in Congress.