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An Alberta judge has ruled that motor vehicle drivers from the Wilson Hutterite colony near Coaldale may not be required by the province to have photos on their driver’s licenses. His decision modifies a 2003 provincial ruling that licenses for all Alberta drivers must be photo IDs. The Wilson Colony license applicants may now apply for them without photos.

The Hutterites believe the provincial requirement conflicted with the second commandment in the Bible, which forbids them from having graven images made. As their driver’s licenses were expiring, they were simply not renewing them, to avoid the photo. But the number of licensed drivers on the colony was rapidly declining, which seriously threatened their rural, agricultural economy. They sued in March for an exemption to the photo requirement.

Alberta argued before Justice Sal LoVecchio, in the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench in Lethbridge, that the photos were an important way of preventing identity theft and fraud. The colony maintained that Alberta was infringing on its charter right to freedom of religion, since Hutterites believe that photos are prohibited by the Bible. Justice LoVecchio, in his decision supporting the Hutterites, wrote, “the amended regulation is inconsistent with the charter to the extent that it renders digital photography mandatory for individuals who claim a valid religious objection.”

The attorney for the Wilson Colony, Greg Senda, expressed the pleasure of his clients. If the decision had gone the other way, it would have meant that soon no one in the colony would be able to drive, which would have harmed them very seriously. “Obviously, they’re pleased because we achieved what we set out [to do]…But they’re also pleased because it renews their faith in the Canadian justice system,” Senda said. He indicated that the province had failed to make a compelling case for over-riding the beliefs of the Hutterites.

Provincial officials reacted unhappily. George VanderBurg, government services minister, immediately expressed his hopes that the province would appeal the decision. He argued that the photo allows police to verify a driver’s identity. “I believe the integrity of our system depends on whether we keep the picture ID or driver’s license to date,” he commented. Another source quoted him as saying, “the Alberta driver’s license that we have in place is known throughout the nation as being the most secure licence …The photo is a part of that licence.”

A spokeswoman for the Alberta Government Services ministry, Cathy Housdorff, told the Calgary Sun that the agency was concerned since other groups might come forward “who would object to having their photo taken for their licences as well.”

The decision prompted a lot of controversy in the press and the blogosphere. The associate dean of law at the University of Calgary, Chris Levy, observed that people with religious objections to photo identification systems “have a strong freedom of religion argument now based on a Court of Queen’s Bench decision in Alberta to back up their objection to being photographed.”

The province quickly decided to appeal, and meanwhile it is requesting a stay of the decision. The Edmonton Journal supported the decision of the provincial government to appeal. “If the ruling stands, it could set a precedent that could undermine the value of a driver’s licence as secure proof of identification, and perhaps ultimately force government to develop a new document for proving a person is who he claims to be,” the newspaper wrote.

Many bloggers commented on the story and, as always, the more popular blogs prompted numerous readers to leave comments. In a blog titled “Mohammed at the DMV,” Kevin Libin compared the Alberta Hutterite issue with other religious issues in the news lately, such as the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed and head scarves worn by French Muslim school girls. He opined, however, that he hopes the decision stands.

Comments appended to his blog post provide some interesting additional details. One man remarked that he was one of only eight percent of the readers of the Calgary Sun who had voted “yes” in an online newspaper poll asking, “Do you think Hutterites should be exempt from having pictures on their driver’s licences for religious reasons?” He said he sees no injustice in some religious minorities being exempted from government requirements such as the photo license.

The comment string included viewpoints from libertarians, who appear to oppose most government restrictions, and from law and order supporters of government regulation. “What happened to one country, one law?” one writer asked. He went on to argue, “this is also [a] safety and crime fighting issue…”

An even longer comment string on this issue grew steadily last week on the blog “Small Dead Animals”. Some writers expressed open hostility toward the Hutterites: “That’s why they drive $500,000 combines and send their women to steal shoes from Wal-Mart;” or “too damn much ‘political correctness’ in our world today….” Others were quite misinformed: “Hutterites don’t have a problem carrying and touching money with the Queen’s picture on it.”

Other people leaving comments appear to be better informed about the colonies: “The men have a high dose of respect for their wives and the women who work in the colonies…And if you want clean, there is nothing to beat a communal kitchen and food prep area in a Hutterite colony.” Rants, approval, hostility, graciousness, ignorance and intelligence—the comment string includes the normal spectrum of opinions that are appended to many popular blogs. One could surmise from the comments that some people in Canada still have problems with the fact that the Hutterites live and think differently from the rest of their society.