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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Mohammed at the DMV

Alberta Hutterites won the right yesterday to not have their photos featured on their driver's licences—a practice, they claim, that violates their religion and is therefore discriminatory. The ruling was made in a Court of Queen's Bench, which means there's still several routes to appeal, including all the way up to the Supreme Court. I predict that's where this will end up.

This will probably turn into a big, ugly deal. At least I hope it does. On one hand, the case raises issues of special religious exemptions, which rankle those of us who believe in equality before the law. As I understand it, the Hutterites take a literal interpretation of the second commandment—against making graven images—and will not be intentionally photographed. It's not an entirely dissimilar issue than that of the Mohammed cartoons. Muslims are also counselled against photos and drawings of people (not just their prophet, contrary to popular belief) toward the same anti-idolatrous ends. And just as Muslims are free to refrain from publishing drawings of Mohammed themselves, but cannot demand that others do the same, Hutterites are free to avoid cameras as much as they like, but should not be able to require that non-Hutterites adjust their laws and lifestyles to suit.

On the other hand, there is an important difference between this and the Mohammed issue. The Hutterites aren't demanding that other individuals respect their laws—they're going after the government. Unlike the anti-liberty cry of Muslim groups, the Hutterites' battle may find favour amongst libertarians, who are opposed to the identity-control measures increasingly being implemented by governments everywhere in the name of "security." Is driving a right? On private property, almost certainly. On public property? Probably not.  But then, libertarians would note that if most roads were privatized anyway, this wouldn't be an issue. They wouldn't be wrong.

In my mind, that makes this more like the kirpan issue, or in France, the headscarf issue: the ability of a government, once it has assumed control over key public institutions (schools, roads, etc.) to allow only certain religious values to dominate (mainstream, atheist, whatever), while overriding others. In fact, Florida ran into a very similar situation a couple of years back, when a fundamentalist Muslim woman wanted to be veiled for her driver's licence photo. The court ruled against her.

I think most Canadians would probably agree, perceiving driving a privilege. It's entirely speculative, but I think they'd say, if you want to drive, you have to play by the government's rules. Too bad if your livelihood depends on getting a licence that violates your core religious beliefs (Hutterites are primarily an agrarian community). Find another job, or, if you want to live by ancient rules, then sacrifice the conveniences of modernity.

Me? I hope the judgment stands. If it does, I think we should all demand to have our photos removed from our driver's licenses. That would ensure that no one's getting special treatment, while having the wonderful benefit of making citizens just a little less controllable.

Posted by Kevin Libin on May 10, 2006 | Permalink


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(1) I was one of the 8% who voted "yes" to the Clagary Sun online poll today asking, "Do you think Hutterites should be exempt from having pictures on their driver’s licences for religious reasons?"

(2) I don't see what the basis would be for non-Hutterites to object to pictures. Do you think that just because Jewish students are not required to attend school on religious holidays that non-Jewish students should not be required to do so either? Should employers who allow employees to be absent from work on their particular religious holidays also be required to close shopand let everyone off work on those days? It does not stike me as an injustice to require one and excuse the other in such cases.

Posted by: Mark Logan | 2006-05-10 1:27:29 PM

I'm curious how you reconcile a desire for less government "control" with a desire for greater public security? And no, that's not intended as a rhetorical question.

(The parentheses do suggest that I think equating photo licenses with government control is a bit dubious, and that's coming from someone who's about a billion times more libertarian than the average Shotgun poster...)

Posted by: Jim in Toronto | 2006-05-10 1:33:40 PM

"Me? I hope the judgment stands. If it does, I think we should all demand to have our photos removed from our driver's licenses."

And then we can all enjoy the delights of having 14 year olds in bars like the way I remember Montreal in the 80's.

Posted by: MustControlFistofDeath | 2006-05-10 1:36:25 PM

It is a difficult question. But one best answered by Mr. Franklin "Those prepared to sacrafice an ounce of liberty for an ounce of safety will neither get nor deserve either"

Posted by: WinnipegLibertarian | 2006-05-10 1:37:49 PM

Mark Logan,

I think that individual businesses should be able to do what they want WRT holidays, religious or otherwise, and allow the labour market to dictate which practices are or aren't acceptable (and in case it needs to be reiterated, I'm talking about holiday practices specifically). A business that gives preferential treatment based on religion will soon find itself unable to employ competent staff who fall outside that preference.

I think that the government is different and as such, should offer equal consideration for all citizens.

Posted by: Jim in Toronto | 2006-05-10 1:50:03 PM

1) What happened to one country, one law?

2) This is also safety and crime fighting issue, without photo, e.g. a driver's license would be so much easier to counterfeit.

3) Should I, as a devout libertarian, be allowed to refuse to have my photo on my license? What about devout muslims? etc etc

Posted by: Johan i Kanada | 2006-05-10 1:51:17 PM

Actually WL, the quote is "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."

It begs the question of which liberties and safeties are "essential," and not "temporary." After all, if we follow the logic of your statement to its conclusion then we should have no police, justice system or military, and all issues of personal safety should be left to individual action. That's an interesting thought experiement but not the basis for a functional civilization, IMO. I'm interested in maximizing individual liberty but even I can see the need for minimal limits as are necessary to guard against a greater tyranny. The interesting thing is in defining what those minimal limits should be, without creating an authoritarian Nanny State of either left-wing or right-wing persuasion.

Posted by: Jim in Toronto | 2006-05-10 1:59:58 PM


Or, as in the most recent Canadian nanny state example, the infallability of Prime Ministers based on their supreme position in the state. A true emulation of the one superior to all in their religious persuasion.

The latest in the line of self-declared infallible ones being from Germany ... yikes, what a recipe for administrative nightmares for the common folk.

I say, give us the liberty to make our own mistakes and may we be spared from the righteous ones who know how to think for us better than we can think for ourselves.

Posted by: Set you free | 2006-05-10 2:17:22 PM

If nothing else, this ruling will underline the fact that a Driver's Licence is not an appropriate identification token - and never has been. If upheld - which maybe it should be - it will most definitely lead to the requirement for a passport or identity card (probably with one or more biometrics embedded) to be carried by all Canadians when we leave or enter the country. Hutterites and any others objecting to the use of such a card will be opting to remain in the country - although I'm curious if biometrics like a fingerprint or retinal scan would violate their religious beliefs.

Businesses that currently rely on Driver's Licences as a matter of a convenient Id token will need to adopt another picture-based method - which will hopefully be privately managed and run under an opt-in model. Oh, just a minute, I think I have a new business to start up - talk to you all later.

Posted by: Active Listener | 2006-05-10 9:29:18 PM

Quote> Hutterites and any others objecting to the use of such a card will be opting to remain in the country

Cool idea. Let's have a wall too, with machine gunners on it, in case they try to leave anyway.

Posted by: cricket | 2006-05-11 10:01:19 AM

cricket, are you suggesting that nations should do away with border security?

Posted by: Jim in Toronto | 2006-05-12 12:26:16 AM


I'm sure you know... the RC pontiff is only infallible in certain very specific and proclaimed instances of Church teaching. None of these teachings contradict any former teachings. The doctrine is consistent.

This would tend to make your comparison with Prime Ministers shaky at best.

Posted by: lwestin | 2006-05-12 7:38:12 AM


Doctrine and dogma are not the same. Doctrine is consistent. Also, the Church has not always had faithful representatives.( Popes being human , after all.)

An argument could be made that the Church 'saved' western civilization and brought it up out of the Dark Ages. (Especially those Irish monks:)

Posted by: lwestin | 2006-05-13 11:01:43 PM


Over the years, religions have done much good in leading the search for scientific knowledge and much of the compassionate sciences.

How could it be any other way when the prophets, such as Abraham, set out to wipe out ignorance and hatred among humans.

Religious figures were, in fact, the early scientists who at least attempted an explanation as to our purpose of being here.

Much has withstood the test of time, unlike the secular humanists who tried to hijack and place monetary value on compassion.

Did you know, for example, the abolishment of slavery in the US was led by church ministers?

Did you know the only education young used to receive was in church and monastery settings before the now failing experiment of public education was established just over a century ago?

Did you know much of the health care work was done on a voluntary basis before the unsistainable system we have today was introduced?

All the good things about this earth did not magically appear the day you were born only to disappear the day you will die ... there were others before you who made your lift this comfortable.

Do not disrespect their accomplishments. You only cheapen yourself.

Posted by: Set you free | 2006-05-14 12:14:58 AM

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