Estrada v. Escritur

A.M. P-02- 1651, 4 August 2003

FACTS:

Soledad Escritor is a court interpreter since 1999 in the RTC of Las Pinas City. Alejandro Estrada, the complainant, wrote to Judge Jose F. Caoibes, presiding judge of Branch 253, RTC of Las Pinas City, requesting for an investigation of rumors that Escritor has been living with Luciano Quilapio Jr., a man not her husband, and had eventually begotten a son. Escritor’s husband, who had lived with another woman, died a year before she entered into the judiciary. On the other hand, Quilapio is still legally married to another woman. Estrada is not related to either Escritor or Quilapio and is not a resident of Las Pinas but of Bacoor, Cavite. According to the complainant, respondent should not be allowed to remain employed in the judiciary for it will appear as if the court allows such act.

Escritor is a member of the religious sect known as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Watch Tower and Bible Tract Society where her conjugal arrangement with Quilapio is in conformity with their religious beliefs. After ten years of living together, she executed on July 28, 1991 a “Declaration of Pledging Faithfulness” which was approved by the congregation. Such declaration is effective when legal impediments render it impossible for a couple to legalize their union. Gregorio, Salazar, a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses since 1985 and has been a presiding minister since 1991, testified and explained the import of and procedures for executing the declaration which was completely executed by Escritor and Quilapio’s in Atimonan, Quezon and was signed by three witnesses and recorded in Watch Tower Central Office.

ISSUE:

Whether or not respondent should be found guilty of the administrative charge of “gross and immoral conduct” and be penalized by the State for such conjugal arrangement.

RULING:

No. Given that the state lacked compelling state interest to overthrow the freedom clause.

Art 32 of the Civil Code provides that “Any public officer or employee, or any private individual, who directly or indirectly obstructs, defeats, violates or in any manner impedes or impairs any of the following rights and liberties of another person shall be liable to the latter for damages” and one of the rights as provided by part 1 of this article states “Freedom of Religion”. The freedom clause as expressly given by this article, gives every person the right to freely exercise his/her religion which is protected by the state. As provided by this case, Jehova’s Witness allowed the cohabitation of a man which is still married but separated as a fact and a woman which was left by her husband which is capacitated to marry again. Thus, this unique case yielded many opinions and at the end, still upheld the freedom of religion and dismissed the petition.

The case was REMANDED to the Office of the Court Administrator. The Solicitor General is ordered to intervene in the case where it will be given the opportunity (a) to examine the sincerity and centrality of respondent’s claimed religious belief and practice; (b) to present evidence on the state’s “compelling interest” to override respondent’s religious belief and practice; and (c) to show that the means the state adopts in pursuing its interest is the least restrictive to respondent’s religious freedom. The rehearing should be concluded thirty (30) days from the Office of the Court Administrator’s receipt of this Decision.

As previously discussed, our Constitution adheres to the benevolent neutrality approach that gives room for accommodation of religious exercises as required by the Free Exercise Clause.171 Thus, in arguing that respondent should be held administratively liable as the arrangement she had was “illegal per se because, by universally recognized standards, it is inherently or by its very nature bad, improper, immoral and contrary to good conscience,”172 the Solicitor General failed to appreciate that benevolent neutrality could allow for accommodation of morality based on religion, provided it does not offend compelling state interests.

Finally, even assuming that the OSG has proved a compelling state interest, it has to further demonstrate that the state has used the least intrusive means possible so that the free exercise is not infringed any more than necessary to achieve the legitimate goal of the state, i.e., it has chosen a way to achieve its legitimate state end that imposes as little as possible on religious liberties.174 Again, the Solicitor General utterly failed to prove this element of the test. Other than the two documents offered as cited above which established the sincerity of respondent’s religious belief and the fact that the agreement was an internal arrangement within respondent’s congregation, no iota of evidence was offered. In fact, the records are bereft of even a feeble attempt to procure any such evidence to show that the means the state adopted in pursuing this compelling interest is the least restrictive to respondent’s religious freedom.

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 Court recognizes that state interests must be upheld in order that freedoms – including religious freedom – may be enjoyed. In the area of religious exercise as a preferred freedom, however, man stands accountable to an authority higher than the state, and so the state interest sought to be upheld must be so compelling that its violation will erode the very fabric of the state that will also protect the freedom. In the absence of a showing that such state interest exists, man must be allowed to subscribe to the Infinite.

IN VIEW WHEREOF, the instant administrative complaint is dismissed.

* Case digest by Desmarc G. Malate, LLB-1, Andres Bonifacio Law School, SY 2017-2018

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