Estrada v. Escritor A.M. No.

P-02-1651, August 4, 2003

Facts: Escritor, a court interpreter since 1999 in the RTC of Las Pinas City, has been living with a man who is not her husband, for more than twenty five years and has a child with him as well. Respondent’s husband died a year before she entered into the judiciary while her partner is still legally married to another woman. This, according to the complainant, is an immoral act, which tarnishes the image of the court. Complainant requested the Judge of said RTC to terminate the respondent for it will appear that if she remained in the employment of the court, it would appear that such act was being tolerated. Respondent, on the other hand, claims that their conjugal arrangement is permitted by her religion, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Watch Tower and the Bible Trace Society. Respondent claims to have a ‘Declaration of Pledging Faithfulness’ under the approval of their congregation. Such a declaration, according to their religious sect, is effective when legal impediments render it impossible for a couple to legalize their union.

Issue: Is the respondent guilty of gross immoral misconduct? Ruling: No. The State could not penalize respondent for she is exercising her right to freedom of religion. The free exercise of religion is specifically articulated as one of the fundamental rights in our Constitution. It is the most inalienable and sacred of human rights. The State’s interest in enforcing its prohibition cannot be merely abstract or symbolic in order to be sufficiently compelling to outweigh a free exercise claim. A distinction between public and secular morality and religious morality should be kept in mind. The jurisdiction of the Court extends only to public and secular morality. Our Constitution adheres the benevolent neutrality approach that gives room for accommodation of religious exercises as required by the Free Exercise Clause. This benevolent neutrality could allow for accommodation of morality based on religion, provided it does not offend compelling state interests. Thus the conjugal arrangement cannot be penalized for it constitutes an exemption to the law based on her right to freedom of religion.

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