SC: Religion does NOT define legal morality

Determining what the prevailing norms of conduct are considered disgraceful or immoral is not an easy task. An individual’s perception of what is moral or respectable is a confluence of a myriad of influences, such as religion, family, social status, and a cacophony of others. However, the morality referred to in the law is public and necessarily secular, not religious.db> In this regard, the Court’s explanation in Estrada v. Escritor is instructive.In Estrada, an administrative case against a court interpreter charged with disgraceful and immoral conduct. The Supreme Court stressed that in determining whether a particular conduct can be considered as disgraceful and immoral, the distinction between public and secular morality on the one hand, and religious morality, on the other, should be kept in mind. That the distinction between public and secular morality and religious morality is important because the jurisdiction of the Court extends only to public and secular morality. The Court further explained that:

The morality referred to in the law is public and necessarily secular, not religious. Religious teachings as expressed in public debate may influence the civil public order but public moral disputes may be resolved only on grounds articulable in secular terms. Otherwise, if government relies upon religious beliefs in formulating public policies and morals, the resulting policies and morals would require conformity to what some might regard as religious programs or agenda.

The non-believers would therefore be compelled to conform to a standard of conduct buttressed by a religious belief, i.e., to a "compelled religion," anathema to religious freedom. Likewise, if government based its actions upon religious beliefs, it would tacitly approve or endorse that belief and thereby also tacitly disapprove contrary religious or non-religious views that would not support the policy. As a result, government will not provide full religious freedom for all its citizens, or even make it appear that those whose beliefs are disapproved are second-class citizens. Expansive religious freedom therefore requires that government be neutral in matters of religion; governmental reliance upon religious justification is inconsistent with this policy of neutrality.

In other words, government action, including its proscription of immorality as expressed in criminal law like concubinage, must have a secular purpose. That is, the government proscribes this conduct because it is "detrimental (or dangerous) to those conditions upon which depend the existence and progress of human society" and not because the conduct is proscribed by the beliefs of one religion or the other. Although admittedly, moral judgments based on religion might have a compelling influence on those engaged in public deliberations over what actions would be considered a moral disapprobation punishable by law. After all, they might also be adherents of a religion and thus have religious opinions and moral codes with a compelling influence on them; the human mind endeavors to regulate the temporal and spiritual institutions of society in a uniform manner, harmonizing earth with heaven. Succinctly put, a law could be religious or Kantian or Aquinian or utilitarian in its deepest roots, but it must have an articulable and discernible secular purpose and justification to pass scrutiny of the religion clauses.

Accordingly, when the law speaks of immoral or, necessarily, disgraceful conduct, it pertains to public and secular morality; it refers to those conducts which are proscribed because they are detrimental to conditions upon which depend the existence and progress of human society. Thus, in Anonymous v. Radam, an administrative case involving a court utility worker likewise charged with disgraceful and immoral conduct, applying the doctrines laid down in Estrada, the Court held that:

For a particular conduct to constitute "disgraceful and immoral" behavior under civil service laws, it must be regulated on account of the concerns of public and secular morality. It cannot be judged based on personal bias, specifically those colored by particular mores. Nor should it be grounded on "cultural" values not convincingly demonstrated to have been recognized in the realm of public policy expressed in the Constitution and the laws. At the same time, the constitutionally guaranteed rights (such as the right to privacy) should be observed to the extent that they protect behavior that may be frowned upon by the majority.

Under these tests, two things may be concluded from the fact that an unmarried woman gives birth out of wedlock:

(1) if the father of the child is himself unmarried, the woman is not ordinarily administratively liable for disgraceful and immoral conduct.It may be a not-so-ideal situation and may cause complications for both mother and child but it does not give cause for administrative sanction. There is no law which penalizes an unmarried mother under those circumstances by reason of her sexual conduct or proscribes the consensual sexual activity between two unmarried persons. Neither does the situation contravene any fundamental state policy as expressed in the Constitution, a document that accommodates various belief systems irrespective of dogmatic origins.

(2) if the father of the child born out of wedlock is himself married to a woman other thanthe mother, then there is a cause for administrative sanction against either the father or the mother. In sucha case, the "disgraceful and immoral conduct" consists of having extramarital relations with a married person. The sanctity of marriage is constitutionally recognized and likewise affirmed by our statutes as a special contract of permanent union. Accordingly, judicial employees have been sanctioned for their dalliances with married persons or for their own betrayals of the marital vow of fidelity.
In this case, it was not disputed that, like respondent, the father of her child was unmarried. Therefore, respondent cannot be held liable for disgraceful and immoral conduct simply because she gave birth to the child Christian Jeon out of wedlock.

Both Estrada and Radamare administrative cases against employees in the civil service. The Court, however, sees no reason not to apply the doctrines enunciated in Estrada and Radamin the instant case. Estrada and Radamalso required the Court to delineate what conducts are considered disgraceful and/or immoral as would constitute a ground for dismissal. More importantly, as in the said administrative cases, the instant case involves an employee’s security of tenure; this case likewise concerns employment, which is not merely a specie of property right, but also the means by which the employee and those who depend on him live.

It bears stressing that the right of an employee to security of tenure is protected by the Constitution. Perfunctorily, a regular employee may not be dismissed unless for cause provided under the Labor Code and other relevant laws, in this case, the 1992 MRPS. As stated above, when the law refers to morality, it necessarily pertains to public and secular morality and not religious morality. Thus, the proscription against "disgraceful or immoral conduct" under Section 94(e) of the 1992 MRPS, which is made as a cause for dismissal, must necessarily refer to public and secular morality. Accordingly, in order for a conduct tobe considered as disgraceful or immoral, it must be "detrimental (or dangerous) to those conditions upon which depend the existence and progress of human society’ and not because the conduct is proscribed by the beliefs of one religion or the other."

Thus, in Santos v. NLRC, the Court upheld the dismissal of a teacher who had an extra-marital affair with his co-teacher, who is likewise married, on the ground of disgraceful and immoral conduct under Section 94(e) of the 1992 MRPS. The Supreme Court pointed out that extra-marital affair is considered as a disgraceful and immoral conduct is an afront to the sanctity of marriage, which is a basic institution of society, viz:

It cannot be overemphasized that having an extra-marital affair is an afront to the sanctity of marriage, which is a basic institution of society. Even our Family Code provides that husband and wife must live together, observe mutual love, respect and fidelity. This is rooted in the fact that both our Constitution and our laws cherish the validity of marriage and unity of the family. Our laws, in implementing this constitutional edict on marriage and the family underscore their permanence, inviolability and solidarity. (CHERYLL SANTOS LEUS, Petitioner, vs. ST. SCHOLASTICA'S COLLEGE WESTGROVE and/or SR. EDNA QUIAMBAO, OSB, Respondents. G.R. No. 187226; January 28, 2015)