The Philippine Flag is permanently displayed from May 28 to June 30 by all government offices and agencies, businesses, educational institutions and private residences to celebrate the country’s independence and promote patriotism.

National Flag Day in the Philippines is celebrated on May 28 as the country commemorates the first use of the Philippine flag after the victory in the Battle of Alapan in 1898.

The flag was first raised after the Battle of Alapan that occurred on May 28, 1898 that was fought between the Filipino revolutionaries led by Emilio Aguinaldo and Spanish troops. The Spanish were defeated, and the revolutionaries recaptured the province of Cavite.

After the battle, Aguinaldo entered Cavite City and unfurled the would-be national flag for the first time.

R.A. 8491, or the Flag and Heraldic Code of the Philippines. states that reverence and respect shall at all times be accorded the flag, the anthem, and other national symbols which embody the national ideals and which express the principles of sovereignty and national solidarity.

The heraldic items and devices shall seek to manifest the national virtues and to inculcate in the minds and hearts of our people a just pride in their native land, fitting respect and affection for the national flag and anthem, and the proper use of the national motto, coat-of-arms and other heraldic items and devices.

In Gerona v. Secretary of Education (G.R. No. L-13954. August 12, 1959 ), the Supreme Court sustained the flag ceremony as a valid exercise of the police power aimed at inculcating in the public the virtue of patriotism and consequently did not exempt members of Jehovah’s Witnesses. from saluting the flag, reciting the pledge of allegiance, and singing the national anthem.

The group used as an argument “religious freedom” noting that the Philippine flag is an “image” to which the Bible prohibits them from rendering obeisance.

However, the SC noted that the flag is not an image but a symbol of the Philippines, an emblem of national sovereignty, of national unity and cohesion and of freedom and liberty which it and the Constitution guarantee and protect.

Under the complete separation of church and state, the flag is utterly devoid of any religious significance. Saluting the flag consequently does not involve any religious ceremony.

The State was not imposing a religion or religious belief or a religious test on said students. It was merely enforcing a non-discriminatory school regulation applicable to all alike whether Christian, Moslem, Protestant or Jehovah’s Witness.

The State was merely carrying out the duty imposed upon it by the Constitution which charges it with supervision over and regulation of all educational institutions, to establish and maintain a complete and adequate system of public education, and see to it that all schools aim to develop among other things, civic conscience and teach the duties of citizenship.

Three decades later, the SC reversed the 1959 Gerona decision in Ebranilag v. Division Superintendent of Schools of Cebu (G.R. No. 95770 March 1, 1993 ) that involved members Jehovah’s Witnesses that were expelled from the public school in relation to the flag ceremony.

The 1993 decision stated the punishment “ is alien to the conscience of the present generation of Filipinos who cut their teeth on the Bill of Rights which guarantees their rights to free speech and the free exercise of religious profession and worship.” Religious freedom is a fundamental right which is entitled to the highest priority and the amplest protection among human rights, for it involves the relationship of man to his Creator.

“Freedom of speech includes the right to be silent. Aptly has it been said that the Bill of Rights that guarantees to the individual the liberty to utter what is in his mind also guarantees to him the liberty not to utter what is not in his mind. The salute is a symbolic manner of communication that conveys its message as clearly as the written or spoken word. As a valid form of expression, it cannot be compelled any more than it can be prohibited in the face of valid religious objections like those raised in this petition. To impose it on the petitioners is to deny them the right not to speak when their religion bids them to be silent. This coercion of conscience has no place in the free society.”, the SC said.

The Ebranliag decision was used in the guidelines for flag ceremonies in schools issued by the Department of Education (DO 78, S. 1994) where the students may either (a) be allowed to join the flag ceremony and while the flag is being raised, should stand at attention without causing any disturbance or (b) be allowed to enter their classrooms during the flag ceremony and required to wait until the flag ceremony is over. Non-attendance at the flag ceremony will not be an excuse for being late in their classes.

(Peyups is the moniker of the University of the Philippines. Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho heads the Seafarers’ Division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan Law Offices. For comments, e-mail info@sapalovelez.com, or call 09175025808 or 09088665786.)