Hutterite drivers can't detour photo ID rule, top court says

The Canadian Press/July 25, 2009

Ottawa - Hutterites in Alberta have lost their religious bid to sidestep driver's licence photo rules in a closely decided judgment by the country's top court.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled 4-3 to uphold provincial rules making a digital photo mandatory for all new licences.

Headshots have been entered in an Alberta database since 2003 to track existing drivers and inhibit fraud.

"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 Hutterites are a Christian sect that believes being photographed violates the second of the Ten Commandments forbidding idolatry.

In 2003, Alberta offered to let Hutterite drivers continue to use special licences without photos, but said they had to be photographed for inclusion in its security database.

The Hutterites refused.

Those who won't comply with the rules can always hire drivers, McLachlin said of the rural sect that argued its way of life is threatened. "Many businesses and individuals rely on hired persons and commercial transport for their needs, either because they cannot or choose not to drive."

She was joined in the majority by Justices Ian Binnie, Marie Deschamps and Marshall Rothstein.

Yesterday's divided ruling is the latest twist in the legal debate over accommodation of religious beliefs.

By 2003, Alberta had approved 453 special licences without photos - 56 per cent of them held by Hutterites.

Lawyers for the sect argued that the province presented no evidence to show that the practice somehow constitutes a security threat.

Federal lawyers argued an exemption for Hutterites could increase the risk of forgery for a document commonly used for identity purposes.

Justice Rosalie Abella wrote a passionate dissent, backed by Justices Louis LeBel and Morris Fish, saying the security benefit of mandatory photos is slight compared to the impact on a traditional sect's beliefs.

She noted that photos of 700,000 Albertans who don't drive are also missing from the security database.

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