Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Law, Morality, Religious Freedom, and Hooking Up with another Woman's Husband (Part One)

Time was when a person could get his head chopped off for believing that the world was round. Science, religion, and politics were hopelessly intertwined that any belief (religious, scientific or otherwise) that did not conform with the establishment was regarded as a national security risk. So, off the heads of the non-conformists went.

But times have changed, man has drawn the boundaries between science and religion, science and politics, and religion and politics. The issues today deal with finding that exact spot where the lines are drawn so science, religion, and politics will stay where they are, and keep the modern man at peace with himself and with others. Unfortunately, there are some things that cannot be helped, like getting trapped in a middle of a war among religions or having a president who bribes bishops or, in the case of one Supreme Court litigant, getting hooked up with another woman's husband.

On June 22, 2006, the Supreme Court promulgated a decision in a case that saw the boundaries blurring.

A court interpreter, who was living with another woman's husband, an immoral conduct, pleaded not to be dismissed from service on the ground of religious freedom. She had the blessings of the Jehovah's Witness, her religion, and she had documents to prove it.

The Court grappled with the case, and deciding almost unanimoulsy, but for two dissents, ruled in favor of the woman.

In the next few posts, I hope to re-trace the steps that the Supreme Court took before arriving at the decision. I don't know whether it will get me in the same place but the exercise will surely be worth the while for this blogger, who has not handled a case of this complexity, and hopefully never will.

The links to the case:

There are two decisions on the same case, the second neccessarily linked to the first.

1. Alejandro Estrada vs. Soledad S. Escritor [A.M. No. P-02-1651. August 4, 2003] This decision contains the links to the dissenting opinions of Justice Carpio and Justice Ynares-Santiago, and the separate opinions of Justice Bellosillo and Justice Vitug.

2. Alejandro Estrada Vs. Soledad S. Escritor. [A.M. No. P-02-1651. June 22, 2006] Justice Carpio and Justice Ynares-Santiago maintained their dissenting votes.

Justice Reynato Puno wrote both decisions. The facts of the case as narrated by the Supreme Court are as follows:

In a sworn letter-complaint dated July 27, 2000, complainant Alejandro Estrada wrote to Judge Jose F. Caoibes, Jr., presiding judge of Branch 253, Regional Trial Court of Las Piñas City, requesting for an investigation of rumors that respondent Soledad Escritor, court interpreter in said court, is living with a man not her husband. They allegedly have a child of eighteen to twenty years old. Estrada is not personally related either to Escritor or her partner and is a resident not of Las Piñas City but of Bacoor, Cavite. Nevertheless, he filed the charge against Escritor as he believes that she is committing an immoral act that tarnishes the image of the court, thus she should not be allowed to remain employed therein as it might appear that the court condones her act.

Judge Caoibes referred the letter to Escritor who stated that “there is no truth as to the veracity of the allegation” and challenged Estrada to “appear in the open and prove his allegation in the proper forum.” Judge Caoibes set a preliminary conference on October 12, 2000. Escritor moved for the inhibition of Judge Caoibes from hearing her case to avoid suspicion and bias as she previously filed an administrative complaint against him and said case was still pending in the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA). Escritor’s motion was denied.

[LA VIDA LAWYER NOTES that the animosity between Judge Caoibes and Escritor is apparent from this point onwards. Escritor would later cite this animosity in her defense.]

The preliminary conference proceeded with both Estrada and Escritor in attendance. Estrada confirmed that he filed the letter-complaint for immorality against Escritor because in his frequent visits to the Hall of Justice of Las Piñas City, he learned from conversations therein that Escritor was living with a man not her husband and that she had an eighteen to twenty-year old son by this man. This prompted him to write to Judge Caoibes as he believed that employees of the judiciary should be respectable and Escritor’s live-in arrangement did not command respect.

[LA VIDA LAWYER NOTES that Estrada's efforts should be commended but his motives are suspect. Yet, there was nothing on record to link Estrada to Judge Caoibes.]

Respondent Escritor testified that when she entered the judiciary in 1999, she was already a widow, her husband having died in 1998. She admitted that she has been living with Luciano Quilapio, Jr. without the benefit of marriage for twenty years and that they have a son. But as a member of the religious sect known as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Watch Tower and Bible Tract Society, their conjugal arrangement is in conformity with their religious beliefs. In fact, after ten years of living together, she executed on July 28, 1991 a “Declaration of Pledging Faithfulness,” viz:


I, Soledad S. Escritor, do hereby declare that I have accepted Luciano D. Quilapio, Jr., as my mate in marital relationship; that I have done all within my ability to obtain legal recognition of this relationship by the proper public authorities and that it is because of having been unable to do so that I therefore make this public declaration pledging faithfulness in this marital relationship.

I recognize this relationship as a binding tie before ‘Jehovah’ God and before all persons to be held to and honored in full accord with the principles of God’s Word. I will continue to seek the means to obtain legal recognition of this relationship by the civil authorities and if at any future time a change in circumstances make this possible, I promise to legalize this union.

Signed this 28th day of July 1991.

Escritor’s partner, Quilapio, executed a similar pledge on the same day. Both pledges were executed in Atimonan, Quezon and signed by three witnesses. At the time Escritor executed her pledge, her husband was still alive but living with another woman. Quilapio was likewise married at that time, but had been separated in fact from his wife. During her testimony, Escritor volunteered to present members of her congregation to confirm the truthfulness of their “Declarations of Pledging Faithfulness,” but Judge Caoibes deemed it unnecessary and considered her identification of her signature and the signature of Quilapio sufficient authentication of the documents.

[LA VIDA LAWYER NOTES that from here onwards what happened was like a judicial pinball where the case hopped from one court officer to another, which is a reflection of the sorry state of our judicial system.]

Judge Caoibes endorsed the complaint to Executive Judge Manuel B. Fernandez, Jr., who, in turn, endorsed the same to Court Administrator Alfredo L. Benipayo. On July 17, 2001, the Court, upon recommendation of Acting Court Administrator Zenaida N. Elepaño, directed Escritor to comment on the charge against her. In her comment, Escritor reiterated her religious congregation’s approval of her conjugal arrangement with Quilapio, viz:

Herein respondent does not ignore alleged accusation but she reiterates to state with candor that there is no truth as to the veracity of same allegation. Included herewith are documents denominated as Declaration of Pledging Faithfulness (Exhibit 1 and Exhibit 2) duly signed by both respondent and her mate in marital relationship with the witnesses concurring their acceptance to the arrangement as approved by the WATCH TOWER BIBLE and TRACT SOCIETY, Philippine Branch.

Same marital arrangement is recognized as a binding tie before “JEHOVAH” God and before all persons to be held to and honored in full accord with the principles of God’s Word.

xxx xxx xxx

Undersigned submits to the just, humane and fair discretion of the Court with verification from the WATCH TOWER BIBLE and TRACT SOCIETY, Philippine Branch . . . to which undersigned believes to be a high authority in relation to her case.

Deputy Court Administrator Christopher O. Lock recommended that the case be referred to Executive Judge Bonifacio Sanz Maceda, RTC Branch 255, Las Piñas City for investigation, report and recommendation. In the course of Judge Maceda’s investigation, Escritor again testified that her congregation allows her conjugal arrangement with Quilapio and it does not consider it immoral. She offered to supply the investigating judge some clippings which explain the basis of her congregation’s belief and practice regarding her conjugal arrangement. Escritor started living with Quilapio twenty years ago when her husband was still alive but living with another woman. She met this woman who confirmed to her that she was living with her (Escritor’s) husband.

Gregorio Salazar, a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses since 1985, also testified. He had been a presiding minister since 1991 and in such capacity is aware of the rules and regulations of their congregation. He explained the import of and procedure for executing a “Declaration of Pledging Faithfulness”, viz:

Q: Now, insofar as the pre-marital relationship is concern (sic), can you cite some particular rules and regulations in your congregation?

A: Well, we of course, talk to the persons with regards (sic) to all the parties involved and then we request them to execute a Public Declaration of Pledge of faithfulness.

Q: What is that document?

A: Declaration of Pledge of faithfulness.

Q: What are the relations of the document Declaration of Pledge of faithfulness, who are suppose (sic) to execute this document?

A: This must be signed, the document must be signed by the elders of the congregation; the couple, who is a member (sic) of the congregation, baptized member and true member of the congregation.

Q: What standard rules and regulations do you have in relation with this document?

A: Actually, sir, the signing of that document, ah, with the couple has consent to marital relationship (sic) gives the Christian Congregation view that the couple has put themselves on record before God and man that they are faithful to each other. As if that relation is validated by God.

Q: From your explanation, Minister, do you consider it a pledge or a document between the parties, who are members of the congregation?

A: It is a pledge and a document. It is a declaration, pledge of a (sic) pledge of faithfulness.

Q: And what does pledge mean to you?

A: It means to me that they have contracted, let us say, I am the one who contracted with the opposite member of my congregation, opposite sex, and that this document will give us the right to a marital relationship.

Q: So, in short, when you execute a declaration of pledge of faithfulness, it is a preparation for you to enter a marriage?

A: Yes, Sir.

Q: But it does not necessarily mean that the parties, cohabiting or living under the same roof?

A: Well, the Pledge of faithfulness document is (sic) already approved as to the marital relationship.

Q: Do you mean to say, Minister, by executing this document the contracting parties have the right to cohabit?

A: Can I sir, cite, what the Bible says, the basis of that Pledge of Faithfulness as we Christians follow. The basis is herein stated in the Book of Matthew, Chapter Five, Verse Twenty-two. So, in that verse of the Bible, Jesus said “that everyone divorcing his wife, except on account of fornication, makes her a subject for adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

[LA VIDA LAWYER NOTES: How many sic notices do you see?Seriously, the testimony of this minister is disastrous to the Respondent, which makes me wonder why it was offered in the first place. Surely, there is a difference if one were to cohabit with the blessings of a congregation, and if one were to exercise her religion by cohabiting with another. The first is akin to religous tolerance and the other an act of religous freedom itself. And that last qoute from the Book of Matthew has no connection whatsoever with issues at hand. It makes even wonder whether this fellow is really a minister.]

Escritor and Quilapio transferred to Salazar’s Congregation, the Almanza Congregation in Las Piñas, in May 2001. The declarations having been executed in Atimonan, Quezon in 1991, Salazar had no personal knowledge of the personal circumstances of Escritor and Quilapio when they executed their declarations. However, when the two transferred to Almanza, Salazar inquired about their status from the Atimonan Congregation, gathered comments of the elders therein, and requested a copy of their declarations. The Almanza Congregation assumed that the personal circumstances of the couple had been considered by the Atimonan Congregation when they executed their declarations.

Escritor and Quilapio’s declarations are recorded in the Watch Tower Central office. They were executed in the usual and approved form prescribed by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society which was lifted from the article, “Maintaining Marriage in Honor Before God and Men,” in the March 15, 1977 issue of the Watch Tower magazine, entitled The Watchtower.

The declaration requires the approval of the elders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation and is binding within the congregation all over the world except in countries where divorce is allowed. The Jehovah’s congregation requires that at the time the declarations are executed, the couple cannot secure the civil authorities’ approval of the marital relationship because of legal impediments. It is thus standard practice of the congregation to check the couple’s marital status before giving imprimatur to the conjugal arrangement. The execution of the declaration finds scriptural basis in Matthew 5:32 that when the spouse commits adultery, the offended spouse can remarry. [LA VIDA LAWYER NOTES: Where did this come from?] The marital status of the declarants and their respective spouses’ commission of adultery are investigated before the declarations are executed. Thus, in the case of Escritor, it is presumed that the Atimonan Congregation conducted an investigation on her marital status before the declaration was approved and the declaration is valid everywhere, including the Almanza Congregation. That Escritor’s and Quilapio’s declarations were approved are shown by the signatures of three witnesses, the elders in the Atimonan Congregation. Salazar confirmed from the congregation’s branch office that these three witnesses are elders in the Atimonan Congregation. Although in 1998 Escritor was widowed, thereby lifting the legal impediment to marry on her part, her mate is still not capacitated to remarry. Thus, their declarations remain valid. Once all legal impediments for both are lifted, the couple can already register their marriage with the civil authorities and the validity of the declarations ceases. The elders in the congregations can then solemnize their marriage as authorized by Philippine law. In sum, therefore, insofar as the congregation is concerned, there is nothing immoral about the conjugal arrangement between Escritor and Quilapio and they remain members in good standing in the congregation.

Salvador Reyes, a minister at the General de Leon, Valenzuela City Congregation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses since 1974 and member of the headquarters of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of the Philippines, Inc., presented the original copy of the magazine article entitled, “Maintaining Marriage Before God and Men” to which Escritor and Minister Salazar referred in their testimonies. The article appeared in the March 15, 1977 issue of the Watchtower magazine published in Pennsylvania, U.S.A. Felix S. Fajardo, President of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of the Philippines, Inc., authorized Reyes to represent him in authenticating the article. The article is distributed to the Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations which also distribute them to the public.

[LA VIDA LAWYER NOTES that the Complainant did not challenge the status of Jehovah's Witness as a religion. Although it is a foregone fact, it would have been a fruitful exercise to define once and for all what qualifies as a religion.]

The parties submitted their respective memoranda to the investigating judge. [LA VIDA LAWYER NOTES that a litigant's memorandum contains a summary of the position fo the litigant. It's the most important pleading as it is the last pleading that a judge receives before he decides a case.]

Both stated (in their memoranda) that the issue for resolution is whether or not the relationship between respondent Escritor and Quilapio is valid and binding in their own religious congregation, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Complainant Estrada adds however, that the effect of the relationship to Escritor’s administrative liability must likewise be determined. Estrada argued, through counsel, that the Declaration of Pledging Faithfulness recognizes the supremacy of the “proper public authorities” such that she bound herself “to seek means to . . . legalize their union.” Thus, even assuming arguendo that the declaration is valid and binding in her congregation, it is binding only to her co-members in the congregation and serves only the internal purpose of displaying to the rest of the congregation that she and her mate are a respectable and morally upright couple. Their religious belief and practice, however, cannot override the norms of conduct required by law for government employees. To rule otherwise would create a dangerous precedent as those who cannot legalize their live-in relationship can simply join the Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation and use their religion as a defense against legal liability.

On the other hand, respondent Escritor reiterates the validity of her conjugal arrangement with Quilapio based on the belief and practice of her religion, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. She quoted portions of the magazine article entitled, “Maintaining Marriage Before God and Men,” in her memorandum signed by herself, viz:

The Declaration of Pledging of Faithfulness (Exhibits “1” and “2”) executed by the respondent and her mate greatly affect the administrative liability of respondent. Jehovah’s Witnesses admit and recognize (sic) the supremacy of the proper public authorities in the marriage arrangement. However, it is helpful to understand the relative nature of Caesar’s authority regarding marriage. From country to country, marriage and divorce legislation presents a multitude of different angles and aspects. Rather than becoming entangled in a confusion of technicalities, the Christian, or the one desiring to become a disciple of God’s Son, can be guided by basic Scriptural principles that hold true in all cases.

God’s view is of first concern. So, first of all the person must consider whether that one’s present relationship, or the relationship into which he or she contemplates entering, is one that could meet with God’s approval, or whether in itself, it violates the standards of God’s Word. Take, for example, the situation where a man lives with a wife but also spends time living with another woman as a concubine. As long as such a state of concubinage prevails, the relationship of the second woman can never be harmonized with Christian principles, nor could any declaration on the part of the woman or the man make it so. The only right course is cessation of the relationship. Similarly with an incestuous relationship with a member of one’s immediate family, or a homosexual relationship or other such situation condemned by God’s Word. It is not the lack of any legal validation that makes such relationships unacceptable; they are in themselves unscriptural and hence, immoral. Hence, a person involved in such a situation could not make any kind of “Declaration of Faithfulness,” since it would have no merit in God’s eyes.

If the relationship is such that it can have God’s approval, then, a second principle to consider is that one should do all one can to establish the honorableness of one’s marital union in the eyes of all. (Heb. 13:4). If divorce is possible, then such step should now be taken so that, having obtained the divorce (on whatever legal grounds may be available), the present union can receive civil validation as a recognized marriage.

Finally, if the marital relationship is not one out of harmony with the principles of God’s Word, and if one has done all that can reasonably be done to have it recognized by civil authorities and has been blocked in doing so, then, a Declaration Pledging Faithfulness can be signed. In some cases, as has been noted, the extreme slowness of official action may make accomplishing of legal steps a matter of many, many years of effort. Or it may be that the costs represent a crushingly heavy burden that the individual would need years to be able to meet. In such cases, the declaration pledging faithfulness will provide the congregation with the basis for viewing the existing union as honorable while the individual continues conscientiously to work out the legal aspects to the best of his ability.

Keeping in mind the basic principles presented, the respondent as a Minister of Jehovah God, should be able to approach the matter in a balanced way, neither underestimating nor overestimating the validation offered by the political state. She always gives primary concern to God’s view of the union. Along with this, every effort should be made to set a fine example of faithfulness and devotion to one’s mate, thus, keeping the marriage “honorable among all.” Such course will bring God’s blessing and result to the honor and praise of the author of marriage, Jehovah God. (1 Cor. 10:31-33)[20]

Respondent also brought to the attention of the investigating judge that complainant’s Memorandum came from Judge Caoibes’ chambers whom she claims was merely using petitioner to malign her.

(Footnotes have been omitted.)

(To be continued)

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