By a narrow 4-3 margin, the Supreme Court of Canada got it right this week when it ruled that Hutterites must have their photographs on driver’s licences – just like everyone else.
The Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony, located east of Lethbridge, had argued that the photo requirement violated their religious beliefs and their rights under the Canadian Charter of Human Rights.
The high court agreed that the requirement is an infringement, but said it’s a reasonable one and thus is allowed.
The provincial government had previously tried to accommodate the Southern Alberta colony by offering to leave the photo off the licence itself, while requiring a picture for the data bank. However, that generous offer was rejected.
Had the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Hutterites, that might have opened the door — morally, if not legally — to all sorts of requests for special treatment by people with a variety of religious beliefs.
For instance, if you think it’s reasonable for Hutterites not to have their pictures on driver’s licences, why should Muslim women who wear the burka uncover their faces when they vote?
Similarly, if Hutterites were allowed not to have their photographs on driver’s licences, perhaps Sikh inmates should be allowed to go into prison with their kirpans (ceremonial swords or daggers).
If society were to take religious rights to ridiculous extremes, parents who put their faith in witch doctors instead of physicians might be allowed to deny their children life-saving treatment.
Of course, in a pluralistic country like Canada, religious differences and freedoms must be respected — to a point.
But when those differences actually create extraordinary inequalities, then the courts must step in to even things up.
Allowing any cultural or religious group to avoid having their photos on driver’s licences would be unfair to other Canadians.
As well, as Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin has written: “The goal of setting up a system that minimizes the risk of identity theft associated with driver’s licences is a pressing and important public goal.
“The universal photo requirement is connected to this goal and does not limit freedom (of) religion more than required to achieve it.”
If there is anything wrong with the Supreme Court’s recent ruling, it is simply what’s wrong with a lot of decisions by the court: It was made without releasing any reasons for refusing the appeal.
That is a huge cop-out that ought not to be allowed.
That said, this week at least, the Supreme Court deserves a pat on the back for embracing a common-sense solution.
If only Hutterites had been allowed to refuse to have their photos taken, then non-Hutterites would have suddenly become second-class citizens.
And that would hardly create a picture of fairness in the minds of most Canadians.
Lee Giles is an Advocate editor.