On Campus

The right to be an exceptional Canadian

Should religious freedom trump Canadian law?


Ahem. Some context:

The Hutterites are a Christian sect who live by a strict code based on the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus Christ. The group fled persecution in Russia in the early 20th century and some immigrated to Canada, settling in farming communities of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.Photo

Some Hutterians believe that to willingly have their photograph taken violates the second of the Ten Commandments, which forbids idolatry and graven images. It is on this belief that the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) was forced to rule just days ago.

In 1974, the Alberta government began issuing photo driver’s licenses. Special licenses were available for those with religious objections until 2003 when the Alberta government began requiring photos for all licenses. The change was made as a measure to protect against identity theft. The Hutterites won cases before the Alberta Court and the Alberta Court of Appeal, but the SCC ruled 4-3 on July 24 to uphold Alberta’s provincial rules. As it stands, all Alberta driver’s licenses must have a photo.

Now, back to the overarching question. Admittedly, the fact that this particular religious debate is so inexhaustible makes me think the hastiness of my initial “no” was a bit brash. I’m not suggesting we adopt the American melting pot, and I don’t support religious stifling in the name of conformity. If, for example, identity theft concerns would not be properly quelled by license photos—as lawyers for the Hutterites contend—I would see no reason to force religious objectors to have their pictures taken. But laws exist for a reason (yawn), which is (in theory) to promote the greater good. (Yes, I know what happened during the Dreyfus affair, yes I understand the concept of “scapegoating the innocent” and no, I don’t think this was a show trial.)

These debates seem to arise precisely when the authority of Canadian law is called into question. I’m not talking about whether or not new Canadians should paint flags on their faces on July 1st, I’m talking about whether citizens should be forced to uncover their faces while voting. (See Harper’s abandoned plan.) And frankly, I’m not sure. I don’t know enough about identity theft and voter integrity to authoritatively conclude. But I do think we should stop running scared when the issue sparks a little dissent. (Again, see Harper’s abandoned plan.)

I also think us feeble sideline commoners should take some perspective. In my opinion, the question should not be “What right does the government have to interfere with religious belief?” but, “Why is the government interfering with religious belief?” If the answer is a valid one (and to some, it will never be) maybe we should put our tissues away.

The great thing about Canada (yawn) is that we have choices. If you really don’t want your picture taken, hitch a ride. (Yes, I know, “but driving is a right” and “we should strive to accommodate” and other like claims…) If you don’t like the education system, send your child to private school. Eat fish on Friday, if you want, and only watch satellite television. Believe what you will about life and death and holy texts and pray to whomever or whatever you wish—as long as you stick to the law. If you can’t, it’s on you to find a way to make it work, not the government. In Canada, we live by Canadian law. If you don’t like it, find a way to live with it. Because if I step into your mosque, I’m going to take off my shoes.

For more, see CBC News Indepth, the Toronto Star and the National Post.