Hutterites need driver's licence photos: top court

Posted: July 24, 2009
Last Updated: July 24, 2009

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled 4-3 Friday that a Hutterite community in Alberta must abide by provincial rules that make a digital photo mandatory for all new driver's licences as a way to prevent identity theft.

The case involved the Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony, located east of Lethbridge, Alta. The group had argued a 2003 regulation enacted by the province requiring photographs on the licences breached their charter right to freedom of religion.

The top court rejected the claim.


"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," said Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, writing for the majority.

"The universal photo requirement is connected to this goal and does not limit freedom [of] religion more than required to achieve it."

The colony is pondering what to do next, its lawyer Greg Senda said. 

"Well, understandably I was disappointed and my client is understandably very troubled by this, because now they need to determine what they can do," he said.

"This is a sincerely held belief of theirs, that they can't willingly allow their pictures to be taken, so they have to now determine what their response to this will be."

The Hutterites fled Russia for the Canadian Prairies in the early 20th century to escape state oppression. Members of the colony believe that the Bible's second commandment — "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image" — prohibits them from having their photograph willingly taken.


Lawyers for the colony argued that the province presented no evidence to show that photo-less licences pose a security threat.

Federal lawyers said that allowing an exemption for Hutterites could increase the risk of forgery and prompt a flood of requests for other religious-based exemptions.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which intervened in the case, said the province failed to weigh the impact of the new requirement on a farming colony that must drive for supplies and for medical reasons.

It also noted in its submission to the high court that Hutterites account for less than one per cent of Alberta licence holders and are the only religious group ever granted the exemption.

At the time of the introduction of the new rule in 2003, about 450 licence holders were granted exemptions from providing a photograph. More than half of those exempted were members of the Wilson and other Hutterian Brethren colonies.

The colony took the province to court after one of their members was pulled over and fined for not having a valid licence because it didn't have a picture.

The Alberta Court of Queen's Bench struck down the regulations, ruling that the photo requirement violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Alberta Court of Appeal upheld that finding in a 2-1 decision.

With files from The Canadian Press