Forum Report: IHR Focus Group Discussion on Religion, Sexuality, and Human Rights

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On July 6, 2017, the Institute of Human Rights held a forum on Religion and Human Rights. The focused group discussion was divided into three sessions : (1) The Right to the Free Exercise of Religion and the Incorporation of Reproductive Health and Sexual Education Classes in School Curricula; (2) The Right to the Free Exercise of Religion vis-à-vis the Right to Accessible Reproductive Health Services; and (3) Freedom of Religion and the rights of LGBTQs. Representatives from academe, educational institutions, civil society, and religious groups participated in the whole day activity. 

Associate Dean Concepcion Jardeleza opened the proceedings by recognizing the timeliness of the discussion on  the human right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion vis-à-vis the right to reproductive health and the freedom of choice. 

The resource person for the first session Dr. Junice Melgar, the Executive Director of Likhaan, raised the question of whether Reproductive Health/Sexuality Education can be integrated into school curricula without violating the parents’ and students’ freedom of religious expression. Dr Melgar explained that there is no conflict between the two since sexuality education integrates the basic values and life skills needed by children in order to make sound decisions in the future with respect to their relationships and sexuality. Issues raised during the discussion included the transparency of schools with respect to the content of the  sexuality education classes and whether or not parents may opt-out of these classes for their children by reason  of their religious beliefs. 

The second resource speaker, Atty. Clara Rita Padilla, the Executive Director of EnGendeRights, Inc. said that access to reproductive health services and  free exercise of religion should not be seen as rights that are in opposition to each other. She discussed the increasing number of teenage pregnancies and how access to contraception could address this problem; how emergency contraception could prevent rape victims from getting pregnant;  and how decriminalization of abortion  and availability of safe abortion should be accessible to victims of rape and where the pregnancy is a threat to the life of the mother,  emphasizing that none of these  would violate religious freedom.

In the last session, Atty. Daniel Lising gave a brief background on how prevailing religious teachings have lead to the curtailment of rights of LGBTs. An interesting discussion followed on  the LGBTQ community fighting for non-discrimination and the equal treatment under the law,  including law reform allowing same-sex marriages,  gender-reassignment and its recognition by both state and church,  and  access to social services to be made available to heterosexual couples. 

In her Closing Remarks, Professor Elizabeth Aguiling-Pangalangan, IHR Director, acknowledged that the topics discussed posed  challenges mainly because though universally recognized human rights are at stake, our Constitution privileges religion.  She  stressed  that the right to freedom of religion is not without limitations, which have to be set clearly in order to protect the life and health of a patient. She thanked the participants and assured them that the FGD proceedings will be incorporated in the Institute’s publications as part of the its mission to promote and protect human rights through responsive research and publications.