Digital photo violates religious rights, court told

An Ontario farmer who's convinced digital photograph databases are the work of the devil was in court today to challenge a law that forbids him a driver's licence without a digitized picture to go with it.

George Bothwell, a devout fundamentalist Christian, said his long battle to avoid having his digital picture taken has been well worth it, even though it has crippled his organic farming business.

"It's had a price, but I think it's leading me down the right road," Bothwell said outside the Ontario courthouse where prominent Toronto criminal lawyer Clayton Ruby was arguing his case on his behalf.

"So I feel good about it. It'll lead me in a new direction and if this is a requirement to drive, I guess I won't drive."

Bothwell doesn't want his picture added to the Ministry of Transportation's digital database on the grounds that it's against his religion, and has tried to use a little-known exemption clause to get out of it, but the ministry has denied his application.

"The government has an obligation when it creates a religious exemption, as it did for the photo driver's licence requirement to do it fairly and openly," Ruby said outside the courthouse.

Bothwell and Ruby argue that the criteria for a religious exemption — that the religion in question be recognized by the province and have a leader who can write a letter on behalf of the applicant — are unconstitutional.

"You've got to belong to an organized religion," Ruby said. ``The government gets to decide if that religion's a good one and they recognize the ones they like and not the ones they don't like."

Ministry lawyers don't dispute that Bothwell is a sincere Christian. But they do call into question whether his objection is a religious one or based instead on his concerns about privacy issues.

"This case is about the applicant . . .wishing an ID on his own conditions," lawyer Shaun Nakatsuru told court.

"There's no question the applicant is sincere in his religion; the question is, is the religious objection to the photo identification sincere?"

The 58-year-old Bothwell, who has recently been attending an Amish community church, said he believes the technology will allow central control over people's behaviour, which the Bible warns against.

He believes that biometrics — the use of physical identifiers such as fingerprints, retina scans and face recognition — are specifically cited in the book of Revelations as the work of agents of the devil.

Anyone who allows their image to be archived by an outside agency bears "the mark of the beast" and will " drink the wine of the wrath of God" as a result, Bothwell contends.

Bothwell has long needed a driver's licence to operate his organic farm and liquid manure spreading business in Owen Sound, Ont., 150 kilometres northwest of Toronto.

Those businesses have since been shut down, he said.

The Transportation Ministry allows drivers to apply for a religious exemption, but requires that the religion be held by a congregation with a leader who can vouch for its beliefs in writing.

Ruby noted that since the exemption was introduced in 1986, only 75 applications have been made.

"How many of them got granted? None," he said. "That's not an exemption, that's a trap, that's fake, that's the government not respecting religion."

Bothwell first took to the road in 1962 with a licence that allowed him to drive commercial trucks. When the province introduced photo cards in 1986, he was allowed to provide a Polaroid, which he still has on the licence he carries in his wallet.

But in 1997, after the Ministry of Transportation introduced one-piece licence cards that require a digital photo, Bothwell refused to have his picture taken and spent the next several years trying to get an exemption from the ministry.

His application was denied in 2002.

The ministry argues that licence photos are used by police and other licensing authorities as a quick, accurate means of identification.