Alberta Hutterites have won the right to be issued driver's licenses without pictures after the province's Court of Appeal agreed with their arguments that requiring them to be photographed violates their religious rights.
"The mandatory photo requirement forces the Hutterian Brethren to either breach a sincerely held religious belief against being photographed or cease driving," said Judge Carole Conrad, writing for the majority of the three-member court.
The Hutterites are a Christian Anabaptist sect who live in farm commune communities across the Prairies. Although they eagerly embrace some aspects of today's world, such as cars and modern farm technologies, they reject others.
They regard the taking of pictures to be creating a "graven image" and tend to frown on it, although some colonies are more liberal than others.
The Alberta government used to allow those with religious objections to hold driver's licences that didn't have photos. About 450 such licences were issued, just over half to Hutterites.
But in 2003 that exception disappeared with the introduction of new licences and the creation of a provincial database of faces to prevent one person from holding more than one licence.
The following spring, Sam Wurz of the Wilson Springs Colony in southern Alberta was pulled over as he was driving to Lethbridge, Alta. His licence didn't have a picture and he was fined $230 for driving without a valid licence. That started the legal struggle that ended late Wednesday with the release of the Appeal Court decision.
In the appeal, the province argued that too many people would take advantage of a religious exception to the photo ID rule, which would render the face database less useful and jeopardize public security.
But the majority of judges decided that driver's licences aren't primarily intended to serve as an all-purpose government-issued ID card. Nor did the judges believe there was much chance of a stampede of applicants for non-photo ID.
"If three years ago there were 453 Albertans who wished to drive but were unable, for religious reasons, to be photographed, there will be a similar number of people in that same position today," Judge Conrad wrote.
The government has already issued about 80 interim photo-less licences, said Service Alberta spokesperson Eoin Kenny.
"Until a decision is made to proceed to a higher court we will continue to issue photo-less ID," he said.
The provision is now available to anyone with a religious objection to being photographed, said Mr. Kenny.
"They would have to prove that they are long-standing and known beliefs," Mr. Kenny said. "The registrar would have to make a decision based on the validity of the claim."