Last Updated 11 October 2022

The Philippines is an archipelago of 7,641 islands, of which seven host the majority of the 109 million population, the second largest population of countries in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).1 Spanish and US influences remain strong, especially in terms of religion (mainly Roman Catholic) and government. Nominally Roman Catholics are a significant majority religion (80%), with Islam as a minority religion (5.6%).2 According to a survey released in 2010 by the Social Weather Station, 83% of Filipinos regard religion as very important in their lives.3 The Philippines has a number of active human rights and non-religious groups.

Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory

Constitution and government

The Constitution4 declares the separation of church and state as inviolable (Section 6), while also invoking “almighty God” in the preamble. There is no state religion, however, in practice,  both Roman Catholic and Islamic religions have close associations with the government.

Article III Section 5 of the Constitution states:

“No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed. No religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights.”

The law treats intentional attacks directed against religiously affiliated buildings or facilities as war crimes or crimes against international humanitarian law.5 Additionally, the law forbids public officials from interrupting religious worship, as well as any person “notoriously” offending religious feelings during such services or in a place of worship.6

The Constitution also grants tax exemptions to “[c]haritable institutions, churches and parsonages or convents appurtenant thereto, mosques, non-profit cemeteries, and all lands, buildings, and improvements, actually, directly, and exclusively used for religious, charitable, or educational purposes” (Article VI, Section 27(3)). Section 29 of the same article, provides that no public funding shall be given to any religious group or members of their clergy unless they are assigned to work in the military, prisons or government orphanages.

In a nation in which church-state separation is the law of the land, it has long been controversial that the Philippine National Police (PNP) established the PNP Chaplain Service (CHS), a group of 21 cop-priests nationwide who consider themselves as “shepherds” of the 190,000-strong police force. The CHS has provided pastoral and religious services, spiritual guidance and counseling since 1992.7

Religious groups are not required to register with the state.

Magna Carta of religious freedom

On 24 March 2021, the Philippine House of Representatives’ Committee on Human Rights approved the ‘Magna Carta of Religious Freedom,’ a bill supposedly aimed at protecting the right of the public to freedom of religion or belief, but instead gives preferential treatment to religious groups, while completely excluding humanists and the non-religious.8

The bill disregards the contributions of humanists to the human rights movement, stating in its preamble that “significant moral advances”, such as the worldwide abolition of slavery “have been initiated by religious principles […] and religious preaching […] not secular ethics.”

Of particular concern is the fact that individuals and organizations could face financial penalties and incarceration for failing to observe religious freedoms. Depending on how the law is enforced by courts, this could be punitive for civil society groups that lobby for causes perceived to be ‘anti-religion,’ like reproductive rights or gender equality.

The bill was approved on its third reading by the House of Representatives during the 18th Congress in January 2022.9; It now awaits the approval of the Senate.

Catholic privilege and pressure

Successive governments have generally avoided taking strong measures to curb the birth rate for fear of antagonizing the Catholic Church. In 2013, several dioceses publicly opposed the re-election of specific senators and House members who voted in support of the 2012 Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act (RH Law), which provided for free contraceptives at government health clinics. A measure of the government’s sensitivity to the Catholic Church was the use of an obscure article of the Penal Code which criminalizes acts that “offend religious feelings.” The law was used for the first time in January 2013 to convict Carlos Celdran (see ‘Highlighted cases’).

Muslim privilege

Driven in large measure by secessionist violence based on perceived discrimination against Muslims (in two Southern Islands), the government has also given Muslim interests a preferential relationship with the government. The National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF), a part of the Office of the President, promotes the rights of Muslims at both the national and local levels, and supports economic, educational, cultural, and infrastructure programs for Muslim communities. NCMF’s Bureau of Pilgrimage and Endowment administers logistics for the Hajj. It also administers awqaf, an endowment for the upkeep of Islamic properties and institutions, and oversees establishment and maintenance of Islamic centers and other projects. The Office of the Presidential Assistant for Muslim Concerns helps coordinate relations with countries that have large Islamic populations and contributes to economic development and the peace process.

The Code of Muslim Personal Laws recognizes Sharia as part of national law; it does not apply in criminal matters and applies only to Muslims. Sharia courts are organized into five sharia districts, all located in the south of the country; Muslims residing in other areas must travel to one of these districts to pursue an action in a sharia court. The state court hears cases involving Muslim and non-Muslim respondents, and national laws apply.10

On 26 July 2018, then President Rodrigo Duterte signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), creating the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Mindanao, home to Muslims who have fought for self-determination, and aspirations for a peaceful and progressive region. The BOL was the result of decades-long peace negotiations between rebel groups in Mindanao, mainly the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and the Philippine Government.11

Education and children’s rights

Under the Constitution, all educational institutions must teach the Constitution as part of the curriculum. The stated goal of education is to instill “patriotism and nationalism, foster love of humanity, respect for human rights, appreciation of the role of national heroes in the historical development of the country, teach the rights and duties of citizenship, strengthen ethical and spiritual values, develop moral character and personal discipline, encourage critical and creative thinking, broaden scientific and technological knowledge, and promote vocational efficiency” (Article XIV, Section 3(2)).

The government permits religious instruction in public schools with written parental consent, provided there is no cost to the government (Article XIV, Section 3(3)). Based on a traditional policy of promoting moral education, local public schools give religious groups the opportunity to teach moral values during school hours. Attendance is not mandatory and the various groups share classroom space. The government also allows groups to distribute religious literature in public schools. By law, public schools must ensure the religious rights of students are protected. Muslim students may wear the

In 2019, Minority Leader Bienvenido Abante Jr of the House of Representatives passed House Bill 2069 or the Mandatory Bible Reading Act of 2019 that provides for the reading, discussion, and examination of the Bible in the English and Filipino language in public elementary and high schools. Abante, who is also a pastor, said that the Bible served as a book of “righteous instructions, principles and standards, discipline, and a book of moral and spiritual values,” which would strengthen the youth’s moral, spiritual, ethical, intellectual and social character, and personal discipline.13

Family, community and society

The RH Law

Culturally dominated by Catholicism, the Philippines is the only country in the world, other than the Holy See, to ban divorce.

Despite several legal challenges from conservative Catholic groups, in April 2014, the Supreme Court of the Philippines unanimously approved the ground-breaking Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012 (the RH Law), which requires government health centers to provide access to family planning and reproductive health services including recognizing a woman’s right to post-abortion care, and mandates reproductive health education in government schools.

The Supreme Court struck down a number of provisions in the RH Law including the requirement for spousal consent for women in non-life-threatening circumstances, parental consent for minors seeking medical attention who have been pregnant or had a miscarriage. The Act gives health care providers the right to deny reproductive health services to patients based on their own personal or religious beliefs in non-emergency situations.

It is estimated that the Filipino government’s long-standing hostility towards modern contraception has contributed to the deaths of at least 4,500 women due to pregnancy complications, 800,000 unintended births and 475,000 illegal abortions each;

LGBTI+ rights

Widespread and systematic human rights violations and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity persist in the Philippines. The Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Expression (SOGIE) Bill is meant to fulfill the rights set forth in the Constitution, particularly the equal protection clause to prohibit discrimination against individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.15!.pdf Though the earliest version of the SOGIE Bill passed in 2000, it has yet to become a law, making it one of the slowest moving bills in Philippine history due to opposition and pressure by religious institutions. Significant faith-based opposition to the SOGIE Bill argues that the bill amounts to a “destruction of society and family.”16

Criminalization of indigenous peoples

Trumped-up criminal charges are brought against leaders of indigenous peoples  defending their rights over their land, which are the target of capitalists and multi-national business interests.

UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz has referred to the treatment of indigenous peoples in the Philippines as the “criminalization of indigenous peoples.”17

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Media freedom

Press freedom is guaranteed under the Constitution, but violence against media workers has been a serious problem. Cyber libel laws are regularly used against journalists and are punishable by up to eight years in prison. In 2022, President Duterte made way for Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos – son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos who implemented martial law in the Philippines.18 At the time of writing, there appeared to be no improvements in the media freedom landscape from the Duterte administration.19;;

Thirty days prior to his inauguration, President Duterte stated during a press conference that, “[j]ust because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch.” According to PEN International, “It was the first of several attacks against the Philippine press, which sparked a political climate conducive to authoritarianism. Not only that, the resulting climate of impunity pushed the gains of human rights advocates several steps back.”20

The Duterte administration utilized an army of trolls to harass and intimidate those critical of the government and its “war on drugs.”21

A SWS survey shows more than half of the journalists surveyed agreeing that, “it is dangerous to print or broadcast anything critical of the administration, even if it is the truth.”22 In spite of the stifling climate for freedom of expression, journalists have continued to report.

Journalist and author Maria Ressa, and the independent news site she founded, have faced a litany of lawsuits. Among them in February 2019, when Ressa was charged with cyber libel for a story that was published, and even though the law had yet to be enacted. In July 2022, Ressa was convicted of cyber libel on appeal and sentenced to more than six years in prison.23

In December 2019, ten years after the Maguindanao massacre24 in which 32 journalists were among 58 people killed in the Philippines, 43 individuals, including eight members of the notorious Ampatuan clan that holds political influence in the region were sentenced to up to 40 years in prison.25 According to CNN, of the 197 people charged with murder, eight have since died, while another 80 other suspects are reported to remain at large, including police officers and additional members of the Ampatuan family.26

De facto “blasphemy law”

The Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines has historically played a significant role in politics.

Section 4 of the revised penal code (largely unchanged since 1930) covers “Crimes against religious worship,” including a ban on “interruption of religious worship” (Article 132) and more pertinently, “offending the religious feelings” (Article 133):

“Offending the religious feelings. – The penalty of arresto mayor [suspension of suffrage] in its maximum period to prison correctional in its minimum period [from 6 months 1 day, up to 2 years 4 months] shall be imposed upon anyone who, in a place devoted to religious worship or during the celebration of any religious ceremony shall perform acts notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful.”

Broader human rights issues

Since now ex-President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs” campaign in 2016, official reports indicate that at least 8,663 people have been killed, mostly urban poor, with some estimates putting the real death count to more than triple of that number. The UN also warned of ‘impunity’ and called for an independent investigation into abuses in their 26-page report released in July 2020.27;

In December 2017, PNP Drug Enforcement Group chief Joseph Adnol issued a statement that body cameras are “not necessary” in their operations and said, “Our camera as policemen is God.” The statement came after the public made clamor on the wrongful killing of 17-year-old Kian Delos Santos by police officers in an alleged operation in Caloocan City.28

Highlighted cases

In 2012, the crime of “offending religious feelings” was used to convict Carlos Celdran for protesting the Catholic Church’s opposition to the Reproductive Health Law. Celdran was a performing artist and cultural activist promoting HIV/AIDS awareness and reproductive health. In 2010, Celdran entered Manila Cathedral during mass to stage a protest action against Church opposition to the reproductive health bill. Celdran dressed as Filipino national hero José Rizal carrying a sign and shouting “Stop getting involved in politics!” He was escorted out by police and later sued by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines for “offending religious feelings”. Following an unsuccessful appeal against his conviction, Celdran went into exile in 2018,29 where he died of a heart attack, aged 46, on 8 October 2019.30


“It saddens me to hear this decision upholding my conviction for ‘offending religious feelings.’ I’m sad not only for my case in particular, but for the Philippines as well. This conviction is just a symptom of a larger disease,”

“There is a bigger picture of corruption and patronage in the Philippine justice system. We need to address these issues if ever we are to move forward as a people.”

— Carlos Celdran


20, 22

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