Municipality of Tangkal vs. Balindong, – G.R. No. 193340, January 11, 2017

Facts:
The private respondents, heirs of the late Macalabo Alompo, filed a Complaint with the Shari’a District Court of Marawi City (Shari’a District Court) against the petitioner, Municipality of Tangkal, for recovery of possession and ownership of a parcel of land with an area of approximately 25 hectares located at Barangay Banisilon, Tangkal, Lanao del Norte. They alleged that Macalabo was the owner of the land, and that in 1962, he entered into an agreement with the Municipality of Tangkal allowing the latter to “borrow” the land to pave the way for the construction of the municipal hall and a health center building. The agreement allegedly imposed a condition upon the Municipality of Tangkal to pay the value of the land within 35 years, or until 1997; otherwise, ownership of the land would revert to Macalabo. Private respondents claimed that the Municipality of Tangkal neither paid the value of the land within the agreed period nor returned the land to its owner. Thus, they prayed that the land be returned to them as successors-in-interest of Macalabo.

The Municipality of Tangkal filed an Urgent Motion to Dismiss on the ground of improper venue and lack of jurisdiction. It argued that since it has no religious affiliation and represents no cultural or ethnic tribe, it cannot be considered as a Muslim under the Code of Muslim Personal Laws. Moreover, since the complaint for recovery of land is a real action, it should have been filed in the appropriate Regional Trial Court of Lanao del Norte. The SDC denied the motion of the petitioner, It held that since the mayor of Tangkal, Abdulazis A.M. Batingolo, is a Muslim, the case “is an action involving Muslims, hence, the court has original jurisdiction concurrently with that of regular/civil courts.” It added that venue was properly laid because the Shari’ a District Court has territorial jurisdiction over the provinces of Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte, in addition to the cities of Marawi and Iligan. Moreover, the filing of a motion to dismiss is a disallowed pleading under the Special Rules of Procedure in Shari’a Courts. Petitioner move for reconsideration, but was denied. Hence this case.

Issue:
Whether the SDC has jurisdiction over the Petitioner Municipality for its Chief executive is also a Muslim?

Held:
No, The Code of Muslim Personal Laws defines a “Muslim” as “a person who testifies to the oneness of God and the Prophethood of Muhammad and professes Islam.” Although the definition does not explicitly distinguish between natural and juridical persons, it nonetheless connotes the exercise of religion, which is a fundamental personal right. The ability to testify to the “oneness of God and the Prophethood of Muhammad” and to profess Islam is, by its nature, restricted to natural persons. In contrast, juridical persons are artificial beings with “no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires.”33 They are considered persons only by virtue of legal fiction. The Municipality of Tangkal falls under this category. Under the Local Government Code, a municipality is a body politic and corporate that exercises powers as a political subdivision of the national government and as a corporate entity representing the inhabitants of its territory.

Furthermore, as a government instrumentality, the Municipality of Tangkal can only act for secular purposes and in ways that have primarily secular effects-consistent with the non-establishment clause. Hence, even if it is assumed that juridical persons are capable of practicing religion, the Municipality of Tangkal is constitutionally proscribed from adopting, much less exercising, any religion, including Islam.

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