Philippine Supreme Court Upholds Freedom of Worship
By Awake! correspondent in the Philippines
ON JUNE 7, 1993, as millions of Filipino schoolchildren trooped back to their classrooms, Jehovah’s Witnesses among them were most happy. Why? Because on March 1, 1993, just before the closing of the preceding school year, the Supreme Court of the Philippines reversed a Supreme Court decision of 1959 and upheld the right of children of Jehovah’s Witnesses to refrain from saluting the flag, reciting the pledge of allegiance, and singing the national anthem.
What led to this turn of events? And what consequences are there for all lovers of freedom in the Philippines as a result of this decision?
Why Jehovah’s Witnesses Do Not Salute the Flag
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that saluting a flag, singing a national anthem, and reciting a pledge of allegiance are religious acts. Their Bible-trained conscience does not permit them to participate in such acts of worship. (Matthew 4:10; Acts 5:29) No matter what country they live in, this is their stand in imitation of Jesus Christ, who said that his followers would be “no part of the world, just as [he was] no part of the world.”—John 17:16.
At the same time, Jehovah’s Witnesses show respect for the governments they live under, and they believe that these are an arrangement that God permits. Thus, they are under obligation to obey the laws of the land, pay taxes, and give due honor to the governing officials. At no time would they ever participate in any rebellion against any government.*
Reasons for Supreme Court Decision
What reasons were given by the present Supreme Court for reversing the decision of the 1959 Gerona v. Secretary of Education decision? The 1993 decision written by Justice Griño-Aquino stated: “The idea that one may be compelled to salute the flag, sing the national anthem, and recite the patriotic pledge, during a flag ceremony on pain of being dismissed from one’s job or of being expelled from school, is alien to the conscience of the present generation of Filipinos who cut their teeth on the Bill of Rights which guarantees their rights to free speech and the free exercise of religious profession and worship.”
It was observed by the Court that while Jehovah’s Witnesses “do not take part in the compulsory flag ceremony, they do not engage in ‘external acts’ or behavior that would offend their countrymen who believe in expressing their love of country through the observance of the flag ceremony.” The Court further observed: “They quietly stand at attention during the flag ceremony to show their respect for the right of those who choose to participate in the solemn proceedings. . . . Since they do not engage in disruptive behavior, there is no warrant for their expulsion.”
The present Court also came to grips with the prediction made in the Gerona decision that if Jehovah’s Witnesses are allowed to be exempt from the flag salute requirement, “the flag ceremony will become a thing of the past or perhaps conducted with very few participants, and the time will come when we would have citizens untaught and uninculcated in and not imbued with reverence for the flag and love of country, admiration for national heroes, and patriotism—a pathetic, even tragic situation, and all because a small portion of the school population imposed its will, demanded and was granted an exemption.”
The 1993 Court decision answered this by stating: “The situation that the Court direly predicted in Gerona . . . has not come to pass. We are not persuaded that by exempting the Jehovah’s Witnesses from saluting the flag, singing the national anthem and reciting the patriotic pledge, this religious group which admittedly comprises a ‘small portion of the school population’ will shake up our part of the globe and suddenly produce a nation ‘untaught and uninculcated in and unimbued with reverence for the flag, patriotism, love of country and admiration for national heroes.’”
Finally the present Court referred to the comments of Mr. Justice Robert Jackson of the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1943 Barnette case in which he stated: “To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous instead of a compulsory routine is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds. . . . Freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.”
After these fine points of law were made, the unanimous decision of the Philippine Court was: “The expulsion orders issued by the public respondents against the petitioners are hereby ANNULLED AND SET ASIDE. The temporary restraining order [against the school authorities] which was issued by this Court is hereby made permanent.”
Associate Justice Isagani Cruz in a concurring opinion added this observation: “In my humble view, Gerona was based on an erroneous assumption. The Court that promulgated it was apparently laboring under the conviction that the State had the right to determine what was religious and what was not and to dictate to the individual what he could and could not worship. . . . In requiring the herein petitioners to participate in the flag ceremony, the State has declared ex cathedra that they are not violating the Bible by saluting the flag. This is to me an unwarranted intrusion into their religious beliefs, which tell them the opposite. The State cannot interpret the Bible for them. It has no competence in this matter.”
The Meaning for Lovers of Freedom
All lovers of freedom certainly rejoice in this decision to uphold the right of free choice in the matter of religion and in the dictates of one’s conscience, while at the same time being subject to the relative authority of the state. (Romans 13:1, 2) In protecting the rights of individuals, the State does not open the way for anarchy but, rather, serves in the role mentioned by the apostle Paul at Romans 13:5, 6, where he states: “There is . . . compelling reason for you people to be in subjection, . . . on account of your conscience. For that is why you are also paying taxes; for they are God’s public servants constantly serving this very purpose.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Philippines respect the jurisprudence of the justices of the Supreme Court and realize that final credit must be given to our Creator, Jehovah God.
For a detailed discussion of why Jehovah’s Witnesses do not participate in saluting the flag, singing national anthems, and pledging allegiance, please see the brochure School and Jehovah’s Witnesses, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., pages 12-16.