SC upholds religious freedom in case written by Justice Puno

Manila, Philippines - COUPLES living together without marrying are not being immoral if their religion allows it, the Supreme Court has ruled. In a landmark decision, the court recently cleared Soledad Escritor, a court interpreter and member of Jehovah’s Witnesses, of immorality for cohabiting with Luciano Quilapio Jr. without the benefit of marriage and having a child by him.

Voting 9-5, the court affirmed Escritor’s right to the union after it cited the “benevolent neutrality approach that gives room for accommodation of religious exercises as required by the Free Exercise Clause.”

“Thus, we find that in this particular case and under these distinct circumstances, respondent Escritor’s conjugal arrangement cannot be penalized as she has made out a case for exemption from the law based on her fundamental right to freedom of religion,” the tribunal said in a 63-page decision written by Associate Justice Reynato Puno.

“The court recognizes that state interest must be upheld in order that freedoms—including religious freedom-—may be enjoyed.”

But five associate justices led by Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban dissented, warning the decision could open the floodgates to people who would use religion as an excuse to enter into immoral conjugal relationships.

“The majority opinion will make every religion a separate republic, making religion a haven for criminal conduct that, otherwise, would be punishable under the laws of the land,” Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said.

“Today, concubinage. Tomorrow, bigamy will enjoy protection from criminal sanction under the new doctrine foisted by the majority opinion. This case is about a religious cover for an obviously criminal act.”

On July 27, 2000, one Alejandro Estrada filed an administrative complaint against Escritor before a Las Piñas court claiming that her union with her common-law husband constituted an “immoral act that tarnished the image of the court.”

But Escritor insisted that the conjugal arrangement conformed to her religious beliefs and had her congregation’s approval.

She said that after 10 years of the union, she and her spouse executed a “Declaration of Pledging Faithfulness,” which “allows members of the congregation who have been abandoned by their spouses to enter into marital relations.”

She told the Supreme Court that the “elders of the congregation” approved the relationship after confirming that her husband had left her.