A Hutterite community in Alberta that believes willfully being photographed is a sin has won the legal right to have a provincial driver's licence without a picture.
The Alberta Court of Appeal yesterday upheld a lower court decision from last year that the provincial regulation requiring photographs on driver's licences violated the Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony's religious freedoms guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
"This is good news. Not being photographed is one of the Ten Commandments," said John Wurz, the head of the Wilson Hutterite colony, which belongs to the brethren that launched the court challenge.
About 30,000 live in Canada, and many believe that the Second Commandment, which forbids graven images, prohibits them from willfully having their picture taken. Some even believe it is a sin for that photograph to be seen by another person.
Despite yesterday's legal triumph, Mr. Wurz is already concerned that a U.S. requirement for all Canadian citizens to have passports by the end of 2008 to cross the border will land them in the courts again.
"It's getting harder to protect our rights with every law they make," he said, adding that it is already difficult for Hutterites to make border crossings with their current identification papers, which don't include photos.
Other provinces with large Hutterite populations, such as Manitoba and Saskatchewan, allow driver's licences without photos for religious reasons.
For several years, Alberta also allowed photo exemptions on religious grounds, but the government changed the rules in 2003, citing security and identify-theft concerns. When the rules changed, 453 sanctioned photo-free Alberta licences were taken out of circulation, with more then half belonging to members of the Hutterites of Wilson Colony.
While the Hutterite community in southern Alberta fought the legal case, the government issued them special interim driver's licences that don't require photographs. Eighty such licences have been issued, but they are not considered a legal form of identification and contain several security features, including a seal.
Madam Justice Carole Conrad wrote in yesterday's 37-page decision that driving is important to the Hutterites' communal way of life, and the lack of photo-free licences violated their Charter rights.
This issue of religious rights versus the state's need to identify its citizens emerged in Quebec during the provincial election earlier this year. Just days before the vote, the chief electoral officer reversed his decision to allow Muslim women to vote without lifting their veils to identify themselves. The decision affected only a small number of voters, but sparked a major debate on the topic of accommodating religious minorities.
Eoin Kenny, a spokesman for Alberta Government Services, said government officials are reviewing the court decision, but it is "possible" that an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada will be made. The province has until mid-August to make a decision.
He said this case is complicated, especially considering that one of the three judges involved in yesterday's decision disagreed with the outcome.
According to the judgment, Mr. Justice Frans Slatter disagreed that the provincial regulation requiring a photograph for driver's licence violated religious beliefs. "In a free and democratic society minor infringements of this kind on religious doctrine can be tolerated," Judge Slatter wrote.
He wrote that the Alberta driver's licensing system would be "compromised" if it allowed some drivers not to be photographed, and that Hutterites should either hire drivers or allow a small number to get licences with photos.
Most of Canada's Hutterites live in more than 300 communal colonies dotted across the four Western provinces. Computers, fax machines, televisions and newspapers are frowned upon, but allowed at more progressive colonies.
Throughout the centuries, members of the religious group - which traces its beginnings to the Anabaptists, a radical Protestant sect that evolved in Europe in the 1520s - have been persecuted because of their beliefs in almost every country they moved to, except Canada. Many Hutterites fled here during the First World War after the U.S. government tried to force their members, who are staunch pacifists, to fight in Europe.