Freedom of religion, Separation of Church and State discussed in the first Universitas Lawyers’ Quarterly
by Atty. Angela Butalid
Last June 24, 2019 was a big day for the Universitas Foundation, as it launched the Universitas Lawyers Quarterly, meant to be a friendly venue for lawyers and law students to get to hear notable and experienced guest speakers, who exemplify the values of competence, character, compassion, and integrity, all of which lie at the core of Universitas’ leadership formation.
The Foundation was fortunate that this milestone was graced by the presence of a distinguished inaugural speaker in the person of retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Jose Catral Mendoza. Justice Mendoza is presently among the members of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC), a Constitutional body that is tasked to screen applicants to the Judiciary as well as to Office of the Ombudsman. He now sits in the JBC as the the Executive Committee Chairperson and representative of the retired Supreme Court Justices.
At around 6:00pm, the guests started arriving, with some bringing their food and beverage contributions for the “potluck dinner”. The crowd was diverse, represented by lawyers from the government, judiciary, private sector, as well as the academe. Interested students of both law and non-law fields also arrived and volunteered to facilitate the event. While waiting, the guests introduced themselves to each other and engaged in lively conversations over dinner. Justice Mendoza arrived at the headquarters at around 6:30 in the evening, accompanied by the Foundation’s President and CEO, Atty. Oliver M. Tuazon. They were joined by one of the guests, Quezon City Regional Trial Court Judge Ed Bellosillo. They were likewise joined, later that evening, by Dr. Jose Mariano, a professor in and immediate past President of the University of Asia and the Pacific (UA&P).
After the dinner, the guests settled down in eager anticipation of the highlight of the event. The program was commenced by the evening’s emcee, Atty. Kyle Bollozos, the Foundation’s Chief Legal Officer. He welcomed the guests and called on Atty. Tuazon to deliver the opening remarks. Atty. Tuazon first gave a brief introduction on Universitas and the work it is involved in, and afterwards, introduced the audience to the life and work of the inaugural speaker, even detailing how he serendipitously met Dean Emerito Enginco, who was instrumental in inviting Justice Mendoza to be ULQ’s inaugural speaker.
Justice Mendoza began his speech by saying it was a challenge to compress his thirty-six years of experience in the judiciary–starting from the time when he worked as a court researcher–into one evening. He then shared, “If I have an untainted record as a Justice, it was because I had my value formation in my family and in the schools where I studied. It was within the family circle and in those schools where I imbibed the values which guided me in my actions and decisions. It was there where I learned what is right and what is wrong; what is moral and what is unethical; what is just and what is unfair. These I put to practice after I became a lawyer and until I retired from the Supreme Court.”
Justice Mendoza also revealed to the audience that it was never his intention to become a lawyer, but the unique circumstances of his life led him to a path to serve many people as a would-be Supreme Court Justice. “I consider my appointment as a Supreme Court justice something of a miracle,” he shared. Implying the involvement of prayer in his decision-making process, he proceeded to say, “I felt that there was divine intervention or guidance. For what reason, I do not know or, if there was, it was not clear to me. So I just performed or complied with my sworn duty, seeing to it that my decision was right, just and fair. The bottom line was always justice. Generally, in borderline cases involving the underprivileged, the marginalized, the poor tenant, and the underpaid employees, I applied mercy and compassion. Where the rigid application of the rules would lead to injustice, I recommended a liberal interpretation or suspension thereof.”
One of the highlights of his address was the insights he shared from the case of Imbong v. Ochoa , where the Supreme Court, through Justice Mendoza, while upholding the constitutionality of the Reproductive Health Law (RH Law), nevertheless struck down certain provisions that violated the right to life of the unborn and the freedom of religion.
“In 2013, one of the most controversial cases was placed on my lap. It was the case on the RH Law, Imbong v. Ochoa, mentioned in the letter of Atty. Tuazon,” the Justice said. “The case was controversial because of the unlimited money of the multinational pharmaceutical companies who wanted to advance their business interests… The campaign was patently orchestrated and relentless. My choice, however, was easy. I stood where my family and schools stood. They were pro-life and so was I.”
The Justice continued to insightfully share, “I stressed then that life begins at fertilization, not at the time of implantation of the fertilized ovum in the uterus, as the multinational pharmaceuticals and the UN have been advocating and what the US Supreme Court decreed in Roe v. Wade . It is my firm belief that one cannot abort a life when it has already been conceived… I led the majority in striking down the provisions against conscientious objectors as unconstitutional. In the Implementing Rules and Regulations of the RH Law, doctors, nurses and health workers who would refuse to carry out unconscionable RH provisions would be dismissed from the service even if they had been serving the government for 20 or 30 years. I considered those provisions as clear violations of the constitutional right to one’s religious belief and led the fight that those provisions be declared unconstitutional. We prevailed and, thus, the subject provisions were so declared.”
Justice Mendoza ended this topic with a thought-provoking statement. “Let it be said that the cause of the perennial issues of poverty and unemployment is not the large population but the unequal distribution of wealth. Even if population growth is controlled, poverty will remain as long as the country’s wealth remains in the hands of the very few.”
The Justice shared another controversial case, Re: Letter of Tony Q. Valenciano, Holding or Religious Rituals at the Hall of Justice Building in Quezon City , which involved a petition challenging the constitutionality of Catholic Masses being held at the Quezon City Hall of Justice. In ruling that the same does not offend the principle of separation of Church and State, Justice Mendoza emphasized that the freedom of religion is a sacred human right, and that the approach of the State must be one of tolerance, unless there is a compelling state interest to interfere with this right. In this case, he found none.
“With 13 justices concurring with me, the Court decided to deny the case of Valenciano,” the Justice shared. “Our very own preamble implored the aid of Almighty God. Our Constitution thus recognizes a Supreme Being. The Court, however, imposed certain conditions and limitations on such practices so that they would not be offensive to the sensibilities of the members of the other religions.”
Towards the end of the speech, Justice Mendoza discussed a little about how applications are being processed before the JBC, and how exhausting it can be especially at this time when there are many vacancies. He encouraged the lawyers in the audience to consider applying to the judiciary.
After his speech, the participants were given a chance to ask some questions, which the good Justice readily and gladly answered, oftentimes with an anecdote from his past. He delighted the audience with his endearing story of how he really wanted to be a pilot because his father was in the Philippine Air Force and how he was enticed by the idea of having the shiny boots that the members of the air force wear. His eyesight problem, however, disqualified him from becoming one. He also shared a few more stories about his life as a lawyer and how he ended up being a Member of the Supreme Court.
After the open forum, the Project Manager, Atty. Angela Butalid, gave the closing remarks. She highlighted the Justice’s statement about the importance of family and early formation in shaping the Justice he eventually became. She also observed that millennials would benefit from learning the organic unity of life which characterizes the life of Justice Mendoza–that is, the commitment to live the same virtues across all aspects of one’s life. At the same time, she linked this to Universitas’ aim of integrating values into one’s life as a professional or as a student, where these same values are tested and ultimately enriched.
Justice Mendoza was then given a token of appreciation by the Foundation’s President, after which, the group had the “obligatory” photo-op’s. Justice Mendoza lingered for a short while as he met some of the guests and exchanged ideas with them. It was truly a memorable night for the Foundation.
 721 SCRA 146 (2014)
 410 US 113 (1973)
 A.M. No. 10-4-19-SC, March 7, 2017A