By Filane Mikee Cervantes

(PNA File photo)

MANILA – The House of Representatives on Monday approved on the third and final reading a measure protecting the right of the people to freedom of religion in the country.

With 256 affirmative votes, one negative vote and three abstentions, the chamber passed House Bill 6492, or the proposed Magna Carta on Religious Freedom Act, which seeks to prohibit the government or any person to burden, curtail, impinge or encroach on a person’s right to exercise his/her religious belief, freedom and liberty of conscience.

Manila Rep. Bienvenido Abante Jr., author of the measure, said the right to freedom of religion or belief is enshrined in Section 5, Article III of the Constitution, which states that “the free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed.”

“HB 6492 ensures that no act of the government or any of its agencies, instrumentalities, officers or employees shall burden, curtail, impinge or encroach on the person’s right to exercise one’s religious belief, freedom and liberty of conscience and the government must also prohibit any act by a person, natural or juridical, or any group of persons that burdens or encroaches on the said right,” he said.

Under the bill, the right of every person to freedom of religion and liberty of conscience, as well as the free exercise of expression shall not be denied, burdened, regulated, or curtailed even if it is a result of the rule of general applicability of existing laws except in certain cases.

The free exercise of religious freedom would only be denied, regulated, or curtailed if it results in violence or inflicts direct or indirect physical harm or danger on other people, or infringes on their own freedom of religion or conscience; and if it is necessary to protect public safety, public order, health, property and good morals.

The bill mandates the protection of every person’s right to choose a religion or religious group, the right to exercise or express religious belief, practices, acts or activities, the right to act in accordance with conscience, the right to propagate religious beliefs, the right to disseminate religious publications, the right to religious worship and ceremonies, the right to organizational independence and the right against discrimination in employment.

It shall also promote the right to freedom against discrimination in educational institutions, the right of companies or businesses to be founded on religious belief, the right of parents or legal guardians to rear children, and the right to tax exemption.

It enumerates acts that curtail or violate the rights of a person to religious freedom such as compelling a person, by means of force, threat, intimidation or undue influence, to commit an act which is in violation of one’s religious belief or conscience; defaming, harassing, humiliating or offending a person by reason of one’s religious belief or the practice of such belief; among others.

The bill also provides penalties for violation of the provisions of the proposed law, such as fines ranging from a PHP50,000 to PHP2 million or imprisonment of six years and one day up to 10 years, depending on the offense and the offender.

The proposed legislation further mandates the Secretary of the Department of Justice to establish, maintain and publicize a toll-free number to provide timely and accurate information and respond to queries regarding the rights protected under the measure.

Other authors of the bill include Camarines Sur Reps. Luis Raymund Villafuerte Jr., Miguel Luis Villafuerte, Tsuyoshi Anthony Horibata and Gabriel Bordado Jr.; BICOL SARO Party-list Rep. Nicolas Enciso VIII, CIBAC Party-list Rep. Eduardo Villanueva, Tarlac Rep. Noel Rivera, Maguindanao and Cotabato Rep. Bai Dimple Mastura and Majority Leader Manuel Jose Dalipe.

HB 6492 was among several bills the House, under the leadership of Speaker Martin Romualdez, passed on the first day of the resumption of its session after a month-long Christmas break. (PNA)