Supreme Court: Converting to Islam to marry a second spouse is bigamy

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 23) – A person who converts to Islam and then contracts a second marriage while the previous one remains legally in effect will be accused of bigamy, according to the Supreme Court.

In a decision penned by Associate Justice Marvic Leonen and released on Monday, the court said conversion to Islam in this scenario does not exempt one from criminal liability.

“A party to a civil marriage who converts to Islam and contracts another marriage, despite the first marriage's subsistence, is guilty of bigamy. Likewise guilty is the spouse in the subsequent marriage,” the verdict read.

The high court was affirming a Court of Appeals (CA) ruling in 2015 where a couple married under Muslim law had been found guilty of bigamy. This crime carries a penalty of imprisonment of up to 12 years.

The couple in question – who turned to the Supreme Court to assail the CA decision – admitted they got married in 2005 even when the man’s marriage to his first wife had yet to be legally dissolved.

The petitioners claimed they could not be penalized for bigamy as they converted to Islam prior to their marriage. They argued that the Muslim Code – and not the general law, or the Civil Code – applies in their case.

But the Supreme Court pointed out that while Islamic law allows polygyny, it only does so in "exceptional cases," in particular, if the Muslim men “can deal with [their wives] with equal companionship and just treatment.”

It added that the Muslim Code is not applicable in the said case since the first wife is a non-Muslim.

“Article 13(2) of the Muslim Code explicitly spells out that the Civil Code governs marriages where either party is non-Muslim and which were not solemnized in Muslim rites. There is no conflict with general law here,” it wrote.

In its 17-page decision, the high court also noted the “contemporary” but “illegal” practice in the country where males convert to Islam as alternative to divorce.

“Conversion to Islam to remarry and circumvent the laws on bigamy generates legal tensions as it exploits the protective mantle of religious freedom under the Constitution,” the court said.

“This Court should not condone practices which circumvent laws in the guise of preserving culture,” it added.