A dispute between the Alberta government and two Hutterite colonies over driver’s licences is heading to the Supreme Court of Canada, signalling a years-long legal battle is about to come to an end.
Canada’s top court agreed Thursday to hear the case that has pitted Alberta’s demands for security measures against the Hutterites’ demands for religious freedom.
“There’s a whole minority of groups out there that want religious freedom,” said Sam Wurz, manager of the Three Hills Hutterite colony leading the legal fight.
“If we win, it’s going to be good for everybody.”
Alberta Justice Minister Ron Stevens also welcomed the news, saying the province considers the case a significant issue.
“From our perspective, the rules that we have are all about safety and we think that’s an important principle to get clarity on,” Mr. Stevens explained.
For years, Alberta allowed people with religious objections to carry special driver’s licences without photographs.
But the province changed the law in 2003, mandating photographs for every driver’s licence.
That drew a challenge from two small southern Alberta Hutterite colonies, whose members said their religious beliefs prevent them from carrying photo-bearing drivers’ licences.
The colonies interpret the Second Commandment of the Old Testament — which reads in part, you shall not make for yourself a “graven image” — as condemning as a sin the act of being photographed.
The two colonies in Three Hills and Coaldale, supported by 14 other Hutterite communities in Alberta, sued the province and won.
Last May, a 2-1 decision of The Alberta Court of Appeal upheld the trial court ruling that said forcing Hutterites to be photographed in order to get driver’s licences violated their constitutional right to religious freedom.
The province had argued the photographs were needed to maintain the licences’ integrity and prevent identity theft.
The Court of Appeal ruled it was unlikely the province would be deluged by requests for special, photo-free licences.
In 2003, before Alberta tried to change its law, only 453 such licences were held in that province.
Still, it was the province that chose to appeal the case to the Supreme Court.
Mr. Wurz, who said his colony has spent more than $100,000 fighting the province, said he didn’t expect the conflict to go this far but he’s glad he will get a final answer on the matter.
“I’m confident we’ll win,” he said. “We believe in the Lord, he takes care of us. His hand will be involved in this.”
Many other conservative religious communities, including some Hutterite groups in Canada, do not share the belief that being willingly photographed is a sin.
Greg Senda, the Hutterites’ Lethbridge-based lawyer, said although the Supreme Court has issued previous decisions upholding religious constitutional rights, he isn’t aware of any prior rulings dealing with religious beliefs and personal identification issues.
“The Alberta government feels there’s a broader policy issue here that they need to pursue,” he said. “So we’ll go and argue our case once again, this time in Ottawa.”
…this post forwarded by Windsor Humanist, Alexander Hodgins, after a November 30, 2007 article by Joel Kom and Richard Foot in The Calgary Herald