MANILA,  May 1, 2004
By Aurea Calica  - The issue on whether religious leaders can endorse political candidates remains unresolved as the Supreme Court reversed yesterday a ruling by a lower court that such endorsements are a clear violation of the constitutional separation of Church and State.

In a 54-page decision, the Supreme Court left open the issue of endorsing political candidates by religious leaders, saying there should be a justiciable issue that should be presented before them.

The Supreme Court granted the petition of El Shaddai leader Mike Velarde to declare null and void the ruling made by Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) Judge Concepcion Alarcon-Vergara that religious leaders should not be allowed to endorse candidates, citing the constitutional principle.

Velarde elevated the ruling to the high court seeking a reversal of the decision. He argued that religious groups had an inherent civil right to endorse any candidate in the exercise of free speech and expression.

The issue stemmed from the petition made by the Social Justice Society (SJS), which claimed the endorsements of religious leaders like Velarde are a violation of the constitutional principle of separation of Church and State.

Aside from Velarde, named respondents in the case were retired Manila archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin, Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) executive minister Eraño Manalo, Bro. Eddie Villanueva of the Jesus is Lord (JIL) movement and Bro. Eliseo "Eli" Soriano of the Dating Daan.

After Vergara ruled in favor of SJS on June 12 and on July 19, Velarde elevated the case to the Supreme Court.

Despite granting the petition in favor of Velarde, the high court kept its hands off the issue of constitutionality, saying the Manila RTC decided on an issue which is purely hypothetical.

"Regrettably, it is not legally possible for the Court to take up, on the merits, the paramount question involving a constitutional principle. It is a time-honored rule that ‘the constitutionality of a statute (or act)’ will be passed upon, only, if and to the extent that, it is directly and necessarily involved in a justiciable controversy and is essential to the protection of the rights of the parties concerned," the Supreme Court stated in its ruling.

The high court said the Manila RTC rendered a decision which is a clear violation of the Constitution, "because it made no findings of facts of the parties concerned."

Malacañang, on the other, welcomed the ruling on the assumption that the high court approved religious organizations’ endorsement of candidates.

"This is part of expression of free speech and this is guaranteed by the Constitution and the practice of endorsing candidates during elections, I think, would fall within this right," Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said.

"So we fully agree with the protection of the rights guaranteed in our Constitution," he said.

But in the 54-page decision penned by Justice Artemio Panganiban, the high court said there were no rights that have been violated by pointing out the procedural lapses committed by the Manila RTC judge which should have dismissed the SJS petition outright.

The Supreme Court said SJS did not specifically state what specific legal right was violated by the respondent religious leaders which might have also violated the Constitution.

The Supreme Court directed the Office of the Court Administrator to evaluate and recommend whether Judge Vergara may be held administratively liable for handing down the controversial decision.

"Indeed, the assailed (Manila RTC) decision was rendered in clear violation of the Constitution, because it made no findings of facts and final disposition. Hence, it is void deemed legally inexistent. Consequently, there is nothing for this Court to review, affirm, reverse or even just modify," the Supreme Court said.

The court said the Manila RTC did not conclusively declare the rights and obligations of the parties in the petition, "neither did it grant any – much less, the proper relief under the circumstances as required of a dispositive portion."

The high tribunal also pointed out Velarde and the other respondent religious leaders in the case were not even given the chance to appear and be heard by the trial judge as well as the Office of the Solicitor General, to represent the government.

The court noted the issue in the SJS petition was of paramount interest considering the preparations for the May 10 elections.

But the SJS failed to allege a "justiciable controversy," a primary requirement for the Supreme Court to have jurisdiction over the issue, the decision stated.

The high court said SJS merely based their arguments on speculations that Velarde and the other religious leaders concerned have endorsed, or threatened to endorse, certain candidates for public office which if elected, would allow them control of the government.

The high court further said counsels of SJS failed to convince the court during their oral arguments that there was enough basis to resolve the issue on whether it is illegal for religious leaders to influence their flock to vote for certain candidates.

Twelve justices voted unanimously on the decision with Justice Renato Corona on leave while Justice Consuelo Ynares-Santiago did not take part in the deliberations. — With Marichu Villanueva

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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