Supreme Court to step into dispute over photo ID for Hutterites

Ottawa, Canada - The country's top court is wading into a dispute about whether Alberta is violating the religious rights of Hutterites by demanding that they be photographed to obtain driver's licences.

In a decision released Thursday, the high court agreed to review regulations enacted by the province in 2003 that made a digital photograph compulsory for all licence-holders.

Hutterite Brethren, a Christian sect who fled Russia for the Canadian prairies in the early 20th century, had traditionally been exempt from the photo requirement. They objected on religious grounds to having their pictures taken because they believe the second of the Ten Commandments prohibits them from willingly being photographed.

One common version of the Second Commandment says: "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."

As usual, the Supreme Court gave no public reason for its agreement to hear the case. But the decision comes amid a growing controversy over the degree to which Canadian society is obliged to accommodate the rights of religious and cultural minorities.

"Reasonable accommodation may be something that the Supreme Court wants to revisit or review or clarify," said Greg Senda, the lawyer for the Hutterites who mounted the challenge.

"It has been in the news a tremendous amount recently . . . . The court may be taking the opportunity, with this particular case, to comment again on the issue."

The top court wrestled with the thorny constitutional matter of public safety versus religious freedom last year, when it unanimously struck down a ban imposed by a Montreal-area school board on the wearing of ceremonial daggers, or kirpans, by orthodox Sikh students.

The ruling left room for safety measures short of an outright ban, such as size limits and rules stating that kirpans must be safely sheathed and worn under clothing.

But the legal fine points of the judgment did little to quell an increasingly vocal debate in Quebec over the duty of the majority to accommodate minority beliefs.

The issue reared its head again in the provincial election this year, when the province's chief electoral officer ruled that veiled Muslim women could vote without showing their faces.

The same debate grabbed national headlines this fall when it was fanned by a batch of federal byelections in Quebec. The Conservative government has since brought in legislation to compel all voters to bare their faces for identification purposes.

The Hutterite dispute differs in detail from the other controversies, but lawyers for both sides agree it raises many of the same legal and political questions.

Alberta maintains its move to make photos mandatory for all in 2003 was necessary to protect the security of driver's licences, which are widely used as general proof-of-identity documents, not just as authorization to take to the highways.

Lawyers for the provincial government argued that making digital photos compulsory would help fight fraud, identity theft and even terrorism by thwarting efforts by forgers to create phoney ID.

The Hutterite colony of Wilson, which took the lead in contesting the new policy, saw the impact on their community as devastating.

Senda noted that it's virtually impossible to run a modern farming operation without being able to drive - and the number of licences in the Wilson colony dropped from 37 to 15 as previous non-photo licences expired and couldn't be renewed.

Justice Sal LoVecchio of the Court of Queen's Bench ruled the mandatory photo requirement infringed the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and struck down the regulations.

The Alberta Court of Appeal upheld the finding in a split decision, but based its ruling in part on narrow legal grounds related to the regulation of traffic safety.

That prompted the provincial government to carry its case to the Supreme Court, in the hope of getting a new hearing on the broader constitutional issues at stake.

No date has been set for a full hearing on the merits of the case, and a judgment is likely months away.