“Houses of Ill Repute”

“I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.” (Ernest Hermingway, Death in the Afternoon, Ch. 1) This is the opening of a Supreme Court decision the subject matter of which are establishments many would consider associate with the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The oldest profession is not showing any sign of aging. An “upright” person may be quick to condemn anyone who enters the doors of one of these establishments considered “houses of sin” without even knowing what he did inside. These establishments are very intriguing and mostly scandalous that many institutions abhor their presence in the community. These are seen as destroyers of morality, family, and they disturb the peace in the community. The City Council of Manila, in its commendable effort in trying to promote a more “moral” community passed an ordinance mandating the transfer of certain establishments from the Malate area to another place or requiring these establishments to convert into another form of business. This became the subject of a case that reached the Supreme Court questioning the validity of the ordinance.

The Ordinance

The subject ordinance states: “no person, partnership, corporation or entity shall, in the Ermita-Malate area… be allowed or authorized to contract and engage in, any business providing certain forms of amusement, entertainment, services and facilities where women are used as tools in entertainment and which tend to disturb the community, annoy the inhabitants, and adversely affect the social and moral welfare of the community” (G.R. No. 118127. April 12, 2005). Among the prohibited establishments enumerated in the ordinance are “hotels and inns”. The owners of these establishments felt aggrieved since the ordinance implies that they render “services and facilities where women are used as tools in entertainment”.  The City of Manila justified that the ordinance was enacted to “clean” the Ermita-Malate to promote good morals and public order in the City.

The Ordinance is Void

The Supreme Court found that the ordinance violated numerous legal provisions and principles. The most serious violation of the enactment is that it is repugnant to existing laws because it prohibits certain activities which it is not allowed to do since only the power to regulate was granted to it by Congress. Said the Court: “Clearly, with respect to cafes, restaurants, beerhouses, hotels, motels, inns, pension houses, lodging houses, and other similar establishments, the only power of the City Council to legislate relative thereto is to regulate them to promote the general welfare. The Code still withholds from cities the power to suppress and prohibit altogether the establishment, operation and maintenance of such establishments.” The power to regulate does not include the power to prohibit. The High Court added: “If it were the intention of Congress to confer upon the City Council the power to prohibit the establishments enumerated in Section 1 of the Ordinance, it would have so declared in uncertain terms by adding them to the list of the matters it may prohibit under the above-quoted Section. The Ordinance now vainly attempts to lump these establishments with houses of ill-repute and expand the City Councils powers in the second and third clauses of Section 458 (a) 4 (vii) of the Code in an effort to overreach its prohibitory powers. It is evident that these establishments may only be regulated in their establishment, operation and maintenance.” In the end, although the Supreme Court commended the City of Manila in its effort to restore morality and order in the City, the ordinance was still declared invalid because the Courts commitment to the protection of morals is secondary to its fealty to the fundamental law of the land.

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