OTTAWA — Canada’s top court says a small Hutterite community in Alberta can be forced to have their photos taken to get a driver’s licence.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled 4-3 today to uphold provincial rules that make a digital photo mandatory for all new licences.
“The goal of setting up a system that minimizes the risk of identity theft associated with drivers’ licences is a pressing and important public goal,” Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin wrote for the majority.
“The universal photo requirement is connected to this goal and does not limit freedom (of) religion more than required to achieve it.”
Alberta introduced the new rules in 2003 as part of a face-recognition security measure to crack down on identity theft.
The Hutterite Brethren is a Christian sect that believes being photographed violates the second of the Ten Commandments forbidding idolatry.
They had traditionally been allowed to carry special licences, and said the photo rule threatens their way of life.
The judgment is the latest twist in the legal debate over reasonable accommodation of religious beliefs and customs.
Quebec especially has grappled with the duty of the majority to condone minority beliefs.
The Harper government recently dropped plans to pursue legislation that would force all voters — including Muslim women — to bare their faces when voting. A minority government, it did so after calculating its chances of passing in the face of stiff opposition in Parliament.
And the Supreme Court tried to balance public safety and religious freedom in 2006 when it unanimously struck down a Quebec school board’s ban on ceremonial daggers or kirpans worn by orthodox Sikh students.
The Hutterites fled Russia for the Canadian prairies in the early 20th century to escape state oppression.
They believe having their photo taken would violate the biblical commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image — any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”
Alberta started issuing drivers’ licences with photos in 1974. An exception under provincial regulations was offered to those with religious objections until 2003.
By that time, there were about 450 special licences in circulation — 56 per cent of them held by Hutterites.
Lawyers for the colony argued that the province presented no evidence to show that the practice somehow constitutes a security threat.
Federal lawyers warned that allowing an ongoing exemption for Hutterites could increase the risk of forgery for a document used not just for driving but for identity purposes. They also raised the prospect of a flood of requests for religious-based exemptions.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which intervened in the case, said the province failed to weigh the impact of the new requirement on a farming colony that must drive for supplies and medical reasons.
It also notes in its submission to the high court that Hutterites account for less than one per cent of Alberta licence holders, and are the only religious group ever granted the exemption.
The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench struck down the regulations. It ruled that the photo requirement violates Charter rights to freedom of religion.
The Alberta Court of Appeal upheld that finding in a split 2-1 decision but based its ruling in part on narrow legal grounds regarding the regulation of traffic safety.