On Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Hutterites living in the Wilson Colony, located near Lethbridge, Alberta, must have their photos taken if they want provincial driver’s licenses.
By a vote of four to three, the justices rejected the colony’s claim that their right to freedom of religion was violated by the Alberta Provincial ruling in 2003, which required photos on all drivers licenses, without exceptions. Previously, the province had allowed drivers with religious objections to receive licenses without them.
In May 2006 the Wilson Colony won the right from the Court of Queen’s Bench in Lethbridge to not have their photos included on their licenses. The colony argued that driving is essential to their way of life and the pursuit of their commerce, but taking photos violates the biblical second commandment forbidding people from making graven images. Photos violate their freedom of religion, they believe.
The Alberta provincial government argued that the integrity of the driver’s licensing system would be destroyed if exemptions would continue to be permitted. In May of 2007 the province lost its appeal in the Alberta Court of Appeals. In November 2007 the province decided to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, which finally ruled last week.
The government of Alberta reacted positively to the news Friday morning. “We’re very pleased with the decision,” a government communications officer said. “It ensures Alberta driver’s [licenses] are among the most secure in North America.” The province had issued non-photo ID cards for the dissenting Hutterite drivers until the Supreme Court would finally decide the issue.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Union had intervened on behalf of the colony. It had argued that the province had not considered the problems that the 2003 requirement would pose to a rural colony that needed, for economic and health reasons, to have driver’s licenses for at least some of its members.
Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, who expressed the opinion for the majority on the Supreme Court, wrote that “The goal of setting up a system that minimizes the risk of identity theft associated with drivers’ [licenses] is a pressing and important public goal. The universal photo requirement is connected to this goal and does not limit freedom [of] religion more than required to achieve it.” She added that “the negative impact on the freedom of religion of colony members who wish to obtain [licenses] does not outweigh the benefits associated with the universal photo requirement.”
The freedom of religion argument was overwhelmed, for the majority of justices, by the belief that all driver’s licenses must have valid photos. In other words, the provincial system is more important than the rights of the individual. According to the ruling, “the objective of the driver’s [license] photo requirement is not to eliminate all identity theft in the province, but rather to maintain the integrity of [the] driver’s licensing system so as to minimize identity theft associated with that system.”
The judges felt that if the colony continues to refuse to have photo driver’s licenses, it may pose an economic burden for the members but not a religious problem. Nothing will require the Hutterites to have driver’s licenses—they just won’t be able to drive, legally, on provincial highways. “To find alternative transport would impose an additional economic cost on the Colony, and would go against their traditional self‑sufficiency, but there is no evidence that this would be prohibitive,” Judge McLachlin wrote.
Three of the judges voted against the majority. Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella, one of the dissenters, wrote that the provincial photo requirement “seriously harms” the ability of the Hutterites to maintain the economic viability of their colony as well as their religious rights. She reasoned that the religious exemption had been in existence in Alberta for 29 years before 2003 without doing any harm to the driver’s license system. Furthermore, 700,000 Albertans without driver’s licenses are missing anyway from the facial recognition database of the province. What harm could it cause if a few hundred Hutterite faces were missing also?
“This makes the mandatory photo requirement a form of indirect coercion that [places] the Wilson Colony members in the untenable position of having to choose between compliance with their religious beliefs or giving up the self-sufficiency of their community,” Judge Abella reasoned.
As might be expected, the Hutterites were not pleased with the decision. Greg Senda, an attorney for the colony, said that he and his clients are quite disappointed and troubled by the ruling. “This is a sincerely held belief of theirs, that they can’t willingly allow their pictures to be taken, so they have to now determine what their response to this will be,” he said. Attorneys for the colony had argued that the province had not presented any evidence that allowing Hutterites to be exempt from the photo ID requirement would pose a threat to provincial security.
Sam Wurz, the manager of the Three Hills Hutterite colony, which had joined the Wilson Colony in their suit, was discouraged by the decision. “It’s a sad day for Canada, for Alberta. We are law-abiding people, we are honest,” he said. He explained that the two colonies will have to consider their options, of either obeying the command to get photos on their licenses, or possibly of leaving Alberta.
Mike Gross, Manager of the Pincher Creek colony in southwestern Alberta, explained that the rest of the Hutterite groups in Alberta are not as fervently opposed to allowing their photos to be taken for their driver’s licenses. “It’s just those two colonies,” he said.