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SC ruling sought
on sects' vote

Posted: 2:15 AM (Manila Time) | Apr. 01, 2004
By Philip C. Tubeza
Inquirer News Service

Influential religious leaders

WILL religious leaders be allowed to influence their followers' vote in the May elections?

The answer will be known after the Supreme Court set for oral arguments the petition of Bro. Mike Velarde seeking to reverse a Manila court ruling that declared unconstitutional the endorsement of candidates by religious leaders.

In an en banc resolution, the Supreme Court scheduled the oral arguments for April 13 at 11 a.m. in the Session Hall of its compound in Baguio City, where the justices are having their regular summer session.

Velarde heads the influential Catholic charismatic group, El Shaddai, whose support is avidly sought by candidates come election time. He challenged the Manila court's ruling because it allegedly violated the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion.

The other respondents in the original case were former Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin, Iglesia ni Cristo Executive Minister EraƱo Manalo, Ang Dating Daan head Bro. Eli Soriano and evangelical leader and presidential candidate Bro. Eddie Villanueva.

Manalo's INC practices bloc voting. Sin was instrumental in rallying support for the assumption to power of former President Corazon Aquino and incumbent President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

El Shaddai supported Joseph Estrada in the last presidential elections, allowing him to win handily. Estrada, however, was ousted two years later over plunder charges.

Velarde also challenged the legal standing of the Social Justice Society (SJS) party, which initiated the case in the Manila court.

On June 27, Manila Judge Concepcion S. Alarcon-Vergara ruled that the head of a religious organization, who "influences or threatens to punish" members, could be held liable for coercion for violating a citizen's right to vote freely.

Bloc voting

While Velarde has gone directly to the Supreme Court, Manalo went to the Court of Appeals to ask that Vergara's decision be overturned.

Manalo said Vergara acted with "grave abuse of discretion" in issuing the decision which was favorable to the SJS.

More importantly, Manalo's lawyer Restituto Lazaro noted, the SJS petition affected one of the doctrines of the INC, which encourages bloc voting by its followers.

"After all, as Filipino citizens, INC members likewise enjoy the right of suffrage. As to how they should exercise such right is a matter no one in a free and democratic country like ours can validly question," Lazaro said.

Cardinal Sin had also defended before the Supreme Court his right to make known his "favorite" candidates during elections.

In a seven-page comment on Velarde's petition, Sin, through his lawyer Maria Liza A. Lopez-Rosario, told the tribunal that he and other religious leaders like him enjoyed the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech.

"This constitutional right cannot and should not be curtailed on the basis of an unfounded fear and under the guise of a violation of the principle of the separation of the Church and State," Rosario said.

"It should be remembered that while Cardinal Sin, Minister Manalo, Brother Villanueva, Brother Soriano and petitioner Velarde are religious leaders, they are still citizens of the Republic of the Philippines whose freedom of speech is guaranteed and protected by the supreme law of the land, the Constitution," the lawyer said.

Next: Sin's advice next page

Influential religious leaders  
Sin's advice  

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