Palau Senate Rejects Controversial National Day Of Prayer Bill

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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i

Heated debate about separation of church and state takes place

By Jose Rodriguez T. Senase

KOROR, Palau (Island Times, Jan. 29, 2016) – The Senate, during its session yesterday, rejected the Committee Report on the pending legislation that establishes a National Day of Fasting and Prayer.

The rejection of the Committee Report came after a heated debate among senators present during yesterday’s session.

The Committee Report on the measure was released by the Senate Committee on Youth Affairs, Social Welfare, and Culture (YASWC) on January 27, 2016. The Committee Report recommended the passage of the bill which was introduced by Delegate Frank Kyota in the House of Delegates (HOD) in May last year and approved by that legislative body unanimously soon after.

House Bill No. 9-187-20S states that the President shall issue each year a proclamation designating the third Tuesday in January as a National Day of Fasting and Prayer on which the people of the Republic of Palau may honor and entreat Almighty God through fasting and prayer in groups or as individuals.

The Committee Report was signed by five of the seven members of the YASWC Committee, namely: Senators Regis Akitaya, Chairman and Mark Rudimch, Vice Chairman; and committee members Senators Mlib Tmetuchl and Phillip Reklai.

Not signing the Report were committee members Senators Mason Whipps and Rukebai Inabo.

The Committee Report was then put on the floor for the approval of the full Senate In the ensuing voting, six of ten senators present voted to reject the Report. Those who voted "No" were Senate President Camsek Chin, Senate Vice President Rukebai Inabo, and Senators Surangel Whipps, Jr, Mason Whipps, Hokkons Baules, and Sandra Pierantozzi.

For various reasons, Senators Reklai, Toribiong, and Tmetuchl were not present during the session.

The "Yes "votes came from Floor Leader Raynold Oilouch, and Senators J. Uduch Sengebau-Senior, Rudimch, and Akitaya.

In an interview, Sen. Senior said she was surprised by stance of the majority.

Prayer and religion are part of the Palauan life and culture. This bill reaffirms that," she said.

The lady lawmaker said the bill is not unconstitutional as claimed by same senators who oppose it.

"The bill does not establish religion," she stressed.

She cited legal opinion on the matter issued by Office on the Senate Legal Counsel last December 10, 2015.

While not providing a definitive answer owing to the absence of a prior ruling of the Palau Supreme Court on a similar issue, the legal opinion did not categorically state that the practice is unconstitutional.

"Without guidance from the courts each Senator must rely on his or her personal understanding of the Constitution and how it separates church and state when considering this Bill," it concludes.

In defense of the measure, Sen. Senior also cited 36 U.S. Code § 119, the US law which establishes the National Day of Prayer.

36 U.S. Code § 119 states that ,"The President shall issue each year a proclamation designating the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals."

For his part, Sen. Chin said his vote on the Committee Report does not mean that he does not support the measure.

According to him, the bill is not yet "dead". We are still going to discuss it," he said.

Sen. Chin said he voted to reject the Committee Report as he disagrees with some parts of it. He did specify the parts of the Reports he opposes.

"The bill makes sense. I might vote yes on it when it comes to the floor," he said.

Sen. Whipps, one of the "No" votes, explained that while he respects the intent of the bill, he believes that the government cannot dictate the people to worship or how to worship.

"God gave us the freedom to choose. It’s about protecting people’s freedom of religion," he said.

According to him, the measure imposes a particular belief system on the public. "We should cling to the separation of the church and state," he said.

For his part, Sen. Reklai said he was surprised by the outcome of the voting.

"I could not attend the session because I was very sick. I felt very bad about it. I feel the outcome would have been different if I was present," he said.

According to him, the bill does not dictate people what to do on matters of religion.

Island Times was not able to get the comments of other senators on the bill as of presstime.

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