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ESTRADA VS.

ESCRITOR [492 SCRA 1 ; AM NO P-02-1651; 22 JUN 2006]

Facts: Escritor is a court interpreter since 1999 in the RTC of Las Pinas City. She has been living with
Quilapio, a man who is not her husband, for more than twenty five years and had a son with him as well.
Respondents husband died a year before she entered into the judiciary while Quilapio is still legally
married to another woman.

Complainant Estrada requested the Judge of said RTC to investigate respondent. According to
complainant, respondent should not be allowed to remain employed therein for it will appear as if the
court allows such act.

Respondent claims that their conjugal arrangement is permitted by her religionthe Jehovahs
Witnesses and the Watch Tower and the Bible Trace Society. They allegedly have a Declaration of
Pledging Faithfulness under the approval of their congregation. Such a declaration is effective when
legal impediments render it impossible for a couple to legalize their union.

Issue: Whether or Not the State could penalize respondent for such conjugal arrangement.

Held: 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. As Jefferson put it, it is the most inalienable and sacred of human rights. The States
interest in enforcing its prohibition cannot be merely abstract or symbolic in order to be sufficiently
compelling to outweigh a free exercise claim. In the case at bar, the State has not evinced any concrete
interest in enforcing the concubinage or bigamy charges against respondent or her partner. Thus the
States interest only amounts to the symbolic preservation of an unenforced prohibition.

Furthermore, 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.

The Court further states that 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. Assuming arguendo that the OSG has proved a compelling state interest, it
has to further demonstrate that the state has used the least intrusive means possible so that the free
exercise is not infringed any more than necessary to achieve the legitimate goal of the state. Thus the
conjugal arrangement cannot be penalized for it constitutes an exemption to the law based on her right
to freedom of religion.

Estrada vs. Escritor

AM P-02-1651, August 4, 2003

FACTS:

Soledad Escritor is a court interpreter since 1999 in the RTC of Las Pinas City. Alejandro Estrada, the
complainant, wrote to Judge Jose F. Caoibes, presiding judge of Branch 253, RTC of Las Pinas City,
requesting for an investigation of rumors that Escritor has been living with Luciano Quilapio Jr., a man
not her husband, and had eventually begotten a son. Escritors husband, who had lived with another
woman, died a year before she entered into the judiciary. On the other hand, Quilapio is still legally
married to another woman. Estrada is not related to either Escritor or Quilapio and is not a resident of
Las Pinas but of Bacoor, Cavite. According to the complainant, respondent should not be allowed to
remain employed in the judiciary for it will appear as if the court allows such act.

Escritor is a member of the religious sect known as the Jehovahs Witnesses and the Watch Tower and
Bible Tract Society where her conjugal arrangement with Quilapio is in conformity with their religious
beliefs. After ten years of living together, she executed on July 28, 1991 a Declaration of Pledging
Faithfulness which was approved by the congregation. Such declaration is effective when legal
impediments render it impossible for a couple to legalize their union. Gregorio, Salazar, a member of
the Jehovahs Witnesses since 1985 and has been a presiding minister since 1991, testified and
explained the import of and procedures for executing the declaration which was completely executed by
Escritor and Quilapios in Atimonan, Quezon and was signed by three witnesses and recorded in Watch
Tower Central Office.

ISSUE:

Whether or not respondent should be found guilty of the administrative charge of gross and immoral
conduct and be penalized by the State for such conjugal arrangement.

HELD:
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.

The Court states that 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.

The states interest is the preservation of the integrity of the judiciary by maintaining among its ranks a
high standard of morality and decency. There is nothing in the OCAs (Office of the Court
Administrator) memorandum to the Court that demonstrates how this interest is so compelling that it
should override respondents plea of religious freedom. Indeed, it is inappropriate for the complainant,
a private person, to present evidence on the compelling interest of the state. The burden of evidence
should be discharged by the proper agency of the government which is the Office of the Solicitor
General.

In order to properly settle the case at bar, it is essential that the government be given an opportunity to
demonstrate the compelling state interest it seeks to uphold in opposing the respondents position that
her conjugal arrangement is not immoral and punishable as it is within the scope of free exercise
protection. The Court could not prohibit and punish her conduct where the Free Exercise Clause
protects it, since this would be an unconstitutional encroachment of her right to religious freedom.
Furthermore, the court cannot simply take a passing look at respondents claim of religious freedom but
must also apply the compelling state interest test.

IN VIEW WHEREOF, the case is REMANDED to the Office of the Court Administrator. The Solicitor
General is ordered to intervene in the case where it will be given the opportunity (a) to examine the
sincerity and centrality of respondent's claimed religious belief and practice; (b) to present evidence on
the state's "compelling interest" to override respondent's religious belief and practice; and (c) to show
that the means the state adopts in pursuing its interest is the least restrictive to respondent's religious
freedom. The rehearing should be concluded thirty (30) days from the Office of the Court
Administrator's receipt of this Decision.