Public funds and religious activities

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President Rodrigo Duterte must have meant well when he asked the Commission on Audit (CoA) to take a more lenient stand on the use of P5-million of public funds earmarked for the rehabilitation of Marawi City to finance instead the Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca of several displaced Muslim Filipinos in the war-torn city in Mindanao.

The Hajj is the annual pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest shrine in Mecca, located in Saudi Arabia, which every Muslim who can afford it is expected to perform at least once in his lifetime.
Five million pesos may be a small sum for the purpose intended by the president, but there are constitutional obstacles to its allowance by the CoA.

Under Section 29 (2), Article VI of the Constitution, “No public money or property shall be appropriated, applied, paid, or employed, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, sectarian institution, or system of religion, or of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher, or dignitary as such, except when such priest, preacher, minister, or dignitary is assigned to the armed forces, or to any penal institution, or government orphanage or leprosarium.”

The cited constitutional provision is plenary enough to prohibit the expenditure of public funds to pay for a religious pilgrimage to Mecca.

That is arguably the main concern of the CoA. Public money, no matter how little in amount, cannot be spent for a religious pursuit.

If Michael Aguinaldo, the chairman of the CoA, actually allows the use of any public funds for the pilgrimage to Mecca contemplated by President Duterte, Aguinaldo may be courting an impeachment rap in the House of Representatives for a culpable violation of the Constitution.

The same fate may await the other commissioners of the CoA who will allow the unconstitutional expenditure of public funds.

Aguinaldo and his commissioners may also find themselves sued for violating the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act after they step down from office.

A concerned group of citizens has already sent word to Aguinaldo regarding the constitutionality of allowing the P5-million to be spent on the pilgrimage President Duterte had in mind. They are expected to sue Aguinaldo and his commissioners if the expense is allowed.

The constitutional prohibition against the use of public funds for religious purposes is anchored on the separation of Church and State, a state policy recited in the Constitution, and the provision in the Bill of Rights, particularly its non-establishment clause, which forbids state-sponsorship of any religion.

It is also for the same reason that the Constitution grants organized religions a tax-exempt status. This explains why donations to a church, purchases made by a church, and any property used by a religious group exclusively for religious purposes are all exempted from all taxes.

The prohibition against the expenditure of public funds for a religious purpose applies to all organized religious denominations.

For example, public money may not be spent on a delegation of Roman Catholic public-school children who are desirous of meeting Pope Francis in the Vatican in Rome. In the same vein, public funds may not be used to pay for the expenses arising from a birthday celebration of a Protestant pastor who may have close ties to politicians.

There is also the fiscal aspect of the problem.

Under Section 29 (1), Article VI of the Constitution, “No money shall be paid out of the Treasury except in pursuance of an appropriation made by law.” This means that public money may only be spent in accordance with a specific directive in a legislative enactment.

The P5-million the president speaks of has been appropriated by Congress specifically for the rehabilitation of war-torn Marawi City. Pursuant to the mandate of the Constitution, that sum of money cannot be spent for any other purpose except for the rehabilitation of Marawi City.

It also means it may not be spent on a religious pilgrimage to Mecca, even if the pilgrims happen to be displaced residents of Marawi City.

President Duterte will be better off not pressing the issue against the CoA. He and the millions of Filipinos who support him will not want to give the political opposition an opportunity to criticize his administration and sow public discord.

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