By Carolina S. Ruiz Austria

The word "Heresy"

was used by Irenaeus in Contra Haereses to discredit his opponents in the early Christian Church. It has no purely objective meaning without an authoritative system of dogma.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Should God Pay Rent ?

If yes, how much?

I have to admit that when I found out that a forum on "Faith and the University" hosted by the University of the Philippines Christian Youth Movement was going to tackle the often thorny issues of church and state last Thursday (August 14, 2008), I was more than curious. I had selfish reasons of course. I am just about to hand in my final revisions on an LLM thesis in which I engage the same issue albeit in specific relation to women's sexual and reproductive autonomy. No less than a retired Supreme Court Justice (Hugo Gutierrez) was the main presenter and the current Chief Justice, Reynato S.Puno, the keynote speaker.

The University of the Philippines in Diliman is of course home to two Christian churches: the Roman Catholic church of the Holy Sacrifice and the Protestant Church of the Risen Lord. As a secular university founded by the Americans in 1908, the issue of whether or not to allow religious organizations in campus was nothing short of a controversy. Justice Hugo Gutierrez recalled how the Roman Catholic student organization, UPSCA (UP Student Christian Movement) found a way around UP's lack of space for religious student organizations by setting up their "headquarters" at a neighboring Catholic university's grounds. For the UPCYM, which represented a minority, such an option was not available. The neighbor was of course then Ateneo de Manila's building next door to UP Manila's Padre Faura building.

By the 1950s the University established a new campus in Diliman and the religiously-based student organizations began lobbying for their own spaces. Justice Gutierrez regaled the audience with stories about the shared "kubo" (hut) which both Roman Catholics and Protestants used for prayer and meetings. The Roman Catholics were sensitive enough to acknowledge the difference in religious practice and made sure that a make-shift curtain was available to shield their statues and images when it was their turn to use the hut.

When the churches were finally allowed to lease lots in the Diliman campus, they both negotiated fifty year contracts. Justice Gutierrez did not mention how much the Roman Catholic church's rent was over their fifty year contract but for the CRL, it was seven hundred pesos! Of course back then seven hundred pesos must have been pretty steep, even what you can call commercial rates. The leases expired sometime ago (The RC lease in 2004 and the CRL lease last year).

To date, however, no new contracts have been signed because the parties (UP and the leasee churches) have not come to an agreement. The presentation by Justice Gutierrez framed the pending issue as one regarding the usual issue on secularism and religion or the so-called separation of church and state. College of Law Dean Marvic Leonen (who was fomer Vice President for Legal Affairs) was the sole panelist speaking from the "other side." Since the entire forum and its main speaker gave us the impression that it was UP's stance of "strict neutrality" in the United States tradition of strict separation that stood in the way of the renewal of the leases, I was half expecting Dean Marvic Leonen's presentation to show us such a position.

As it turns out of course, UP is neither antagonistic to the presence of religion nor these churches in particular but it is unable to grant the churches a "special rate" because of a DOJ (Deaprtment of Justice Opinion) that prescribes that the leases be re-negotiated in the usual way. In this case, one has to assume that fifty years later, the commercial rates would of course be something way above seven hundred pesos. Now therein to me lies the main issue: Should GOD pay rent? If yes, how much?

I say this tongue in cheek of course. It was a bit disappointing that those who were speaking for the church were not able to give us an idea of what their idea of a fair price was. Or conversely, what would be the basis for granting the churches a discount? (Unfortunately there was no representative from the Roman Catholic church)

The freedom of religion was (as expected) invoked throughout the forum by the religious. And while the values of ecumenism and pluralism were also mentioned, it wasn't clear whether this was exclusively among christians or whether it was meant to be more inclusive. Dean Marvic Leonen pointed out that the freedom of religion also includes protecting the right to conscience of atheists and agnostics (non-religion). Likewise, he also mentioned that claims for space within the university do not exclusively come from christians but in recent years, claims have been made by Muslims. Notably, invoking freedom of religion in the context of diversity alerts us to the dangers of establishment.

Why should the UP extend discounts to the two christian churches? How will such a grant or exemption be construed? It is true that as a state university, any "discount" in favor of these christian churches might be construed as establishment. It is also true that it can open the floodgates to similar claims for exemptions and discounts on leases of publicly owned land on the basis of religious accomodation.

In 2005, the Roman Catholic chapel designed by Locsin was declared a national heritage site. Justice Hugo Gutierrez during his presentation asked hypothetically what the UP would even propose to do with the church structures if the leases do not push through somehow (given that these are the terms in the original lease agreement). What use would they have of them? (Oh I can think of many as I am sure many others out there can)

At the end of the forum it seemed like everybody thought the issue is one destined for the court to decide. In the meantime, nobody is asking these churches to leave. As they say, "God forbid!" (Quite self-serving though, you could argue?) I'm just joking around of course. Maybe the faiths (all of them) including often humorless aetheists and agnostics ought to share a hut somewhere in UP (free of rent!) If they all banded together, they could all argue shared secular space (my thesis argument of course) and acknowledge it as an open, contested space of mutual engagement and co-existence. (Like the shared hut of the 1950s RCs and Portestants)


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