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Ray Pennings

The Hutterite driver's-licence ruling misses the big picture Add to ...

The passage of time and the progress of cultural development continue to make positive changes in society, but surely Canadians are saddened by the process that has put the existence of Alberta's Hutterite colonies at risk.

To those who don't know, the Alberta government recently won a Supreme Court of Canada decision upholding its right to insist that in order to have a valid driver's licence, the holders thereof must have their photograph attached to it. On the face of it, this is not unreasonable: People need to be identified, and driving is a privilege and not a right.

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Or, as Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin wrote in support of the majority in the 4-3 decision, "the negative impact on the freedom of religion of colony members who wish to obtain licences does not outweigh the benefits associated with the universal photo requirement."

The problem is that the photo requirement offends a Hutterian tenet of faith that for some forbids having their photograph willingly taken. The act is interpreted as the creation of a "graven image," which violates the Bible's Second Commandment forbidding idolatry. Relevant to this and the end of their exempt status is that on a great many of the colonies within Alberta, Hutterites allow photography, provided that it is candid. The act of photography itself does not violate their piety; it is the act of posing that some consider sinful.

Other people - obviously most of us - hold different views.

Until now, Alberta Hutterites, a passive, communal people, have been free to hold licences without having to have their photo taken. Now, some colonies are faced with the decision to either abandon driving or to sell the land they have so faithfully stewarded these past hundred or more years and move to a place where their faith can comfortably co-exist with secular society - essentially the same broad issue that caused their forefathers to flee Russia for North America in the late 19th century.

Alberta told the Supreme Court that the primary reasons for the regulation are the enhancement of security, additional efficiency for the police and possible future harmonization of licensing.

But surely the main objective is to ensure that people are properly identified and not whether or not they have their pictures taken. After all, people can - through perfectly routine practices such as changes in hairstyle, growth or removal of facial hair and weight gain and loss - appear considerably different in a photo than they do in reality.

So why not simply give the Hutterites (and others with a similarly proven conscientious objection) the option of identifying themselves on their licences through other means? A thumbprint, for instance, provides more accurate identification than a photograph. Police have the technological capacity to access licences on file and they have the technology to test them for matches.

Even if the process of identification in such instances takes extra time, the added inconvenience to the Hutterites (really, how many times have you seen flashing lights in hot pursuit of Hutterites on the lam?) seems a reasonable compromise.

Indeed, as Madam Justice Rosalie Abella wrote in dissent, fewer than 250 drivers were exempted, the previous system operated without incident for 29 years and there is no harmonized licensing system in place. "The government has not discharged its evidentiary burden or demonstrated that the salutary effects in these circumstances are anything more than a web of speculation."

She goes on to say: "To suggest, as the majority does, that the deleterious effects are minor because the colony members could simply arrange for third-party transportation fails to appreciate the significance of their self-sufficiency to the autonomous integrity of their religious community. When significant sacrifices have to be made to practise one's religion in the face of a state-imposed burden, the choice to practise one's religion is no longer uncoerced."

Canada has a long tradition of welcoming people of different backgrounds and encouraging them to feel free to maintain their traditions. Excellent farmers and kind, peaceful people, the Hutterites are a rich part of Alberta.

Yes, there are boundaries to cultural practices that may be accepted elsewhere but are unacceptable here. But if there has been one positive identifier in Canada's culture, it is that we are a reasonable people who respect each other's beliefs. Reasonable people should be able to accommodate the rich Hutterite tradition of peacefully farming Alberta's rich soil.

Ray Pennings is senior fellow and vice-president of research for Cardus.

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