Throughout October, Canadians have been responding to the freedom of religious expression issues raised by the Wilson Colony of Hutterites in southern Alberta. The Wilson Colony believes that a 2003 change in provincial law, which requires all driver’s licenses to include valid photos, violates their understanding of the Second Commandment forbidding graven images.
Since their communal way of life requires them to have at least some licensed drivers in their midst, the law forces them to choose between accepting the Second Commandment and living as the first Christians did according to the book of Acts. The provincial law therefore violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, they argue.
The Hutterites took the province to court and in May 2006 the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench in Lethbridge found in favor of the colony. The next year, May 2007, the colony won against the provincial government in the Alberta Court of Appeal. The Province decided to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, which accepted the case because it raises important constitutional questions. On October 7, 2008, lawyers for the two sides, plus attorneys for supporting groups, finally had the opportunity to present their arguments to the Supreme Court. A variety of Canadian sources have commented about the case during the past month.
On October 1, Bruce J. Clemenger wrote a piece for a Canadian Christian news service, which presented the arguments of a couple religious freedom advocacy groups that support the Hutterites. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and the Christian Legal Fellowship, he asserted, would argue that the Hutterite refusal to allow their photos to be taken poses absolutely no harm to the broader community. Four other Canadian provinces permit religious exemptions from photo drivers licenses, as did Alberta until the province changed its law in 2003.
Mr. Clememger pointed out that having a valid license to drive was essential to the colony. As rural residents, public means of transportation are not available. They live in a communal fashion, as they believe Acts 2, verses 42 to 47, indicates they should, and the only practical way they can do that is by large-scale farming. A few of their members therefore must have driver’s licenses for medical emergencies and in order for them to take their produce to markets. Without the right to drive, the colony would no longer be able to exist, which would eliminate their ability to practice their religious beliefs. Furthermore, the Hutterites do not practice any criminal activity, such as polygamy, nor do they acknowledge any alternative legal systems.
On October 6, The Lawyer’s Weekly also featured the Wilson Colony case. As the magazine pointed out, Alberta does admit that its law violates the religious freedoms of the Hutterite colony. But it argues that the law is justified under section 1 of the Charter since “mandatory driver photographs on licenses help prevent fraud, identity theft and terrorism.”
The article presents the reasoning of the Attorney General of Quebec, an intervener on the side of the Attorney General of Alberta. “A driver’s license is now an important identity document,” according to that lawyer. That objective, of being able to correctly identify every citizen through a photo ID, is so important in the struggle against terrorism that it outweighs the religious scruples of a communal Christian group.
The Globe and Mail, reviewing the case on October 7, reported that the federal government has also intervened on behalf of the province. The government warned that “the consequences could be grave” if the court would decide in favor of the Wilson Colony—nothing would prevent many other fringe groups from seeking exemptions from the photo ID requirement. Making freedom of religion an absolute right could jeopardize the security of essential documents such as citizenship certificates and passports.
However, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association supports the Hutterite cause, according to the paper. “Tearing apart the fabric of a religious community and ending their communal way of life exacts too high a price for the benefit of including 252 Hutterites in Alberta’s data base,” that group argues.
The CCLA maintains that the real issue is facial recognition technology, which might allow the province to better prevent identity theft and terrorism. Without public discussion, the province is imposing an identity card regime—the law has nothing to do with public safety. The public should have a chance to further discuss these real, controversial privacy concerns, the group says.
The Hutterites themselves argue in their brief that the province is trying to foster “a move towards a controlled style of government reminiscent of planned economies where unelected officials pull the levers of political power.” Their brief says that “the appellant refers to the terrible events of Sept. 11, 2001, but fails to provide any explanation—let alone cogent evidence—of how having a photo driver’s licence would have prevented the hijacking and crashing of airplanes by terrorists.”
The Toronto Star quoted Samuel Wurz from the Wilson Colony itself in its coverage of the story on October 7. He argues that the province is forcing the Wilson Colony to choose between the Second Commandment and their communal way of life—both essential commands from the Bible, in their belief. When the Hutterites came to Canada in 1918, he said, “the government promised … we could live our religious life the way we feel is necessary.”
On October 18, Greg Senda, lawyer for the Wilson Colony, told the Lethbridge Herald that the issue represents a very significant constitutional case. He wouldn’t comment on the facts or merits of the case, but he did indicate that having the opportunity to present such important issues to the nation’s highest court was really exciting for him. The Supreme Court is expected to render its judgment within four to six months.