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A Licence Plate, Government Policy and Religious Freedom
19 years later, the licence plate REV JO is found unacceptable because it could encourage street racing, drinking and driving, and the promotion of religion.

"This type of thing belongs on a bumper sticker, not a licence plate,” according to a representative of the government of Ontario.

Joanne Sorrill is a retired United Church minister who has had the licence plate “REV JO” for 19 years. A friend gave her the “vanity plate” for her 50th birthday in 1988. This year the province’s Personalized Licence Plate Review Committee gave Rev. Jo the news that her plate was no longer allowed.

“… the Charter and the Ontario Human Rights Code explicitly provide for protection from discrimination by government because of religious belief.”

The government of Ontario expressed three concerns with the REV JO plate. First, the word “rev” could encourage speeding or racing as it implies getting your engine powered up. Second, Bacardi recently released an alcoholic beverage called “REV” and the province is concerned this licence plate could encourage people to drink and drive. Third, the plate could be perceived as promoting religion for those who know that “Rev” is the abbreviated form of “Reverend,” a title often given to ordained Christian ministers.

Apart from The Beach Boys Little Old Lady From Pasadena who had a “brand new shiny red Super Stock Dodge” and was “the terror of Colorado Boulevard,” it seems difficult to imagine near 70 year old Reverend Sorrill inspiring street racing in her modest, white Chev.

The province’s concerns about drinking and driving hit an extreme edge when government officials convinced themselves that eliminating a personalized licence plate, that long preceded Bacardi bottling a fluorescent blue alcoholic beverage, would be a deterrent to the illegal practice. One might think that reducing the Liquor Control Board of Ontario’s multi-million dollar advertising budget (Food & Drink magazine – 340 pages for Christmas; 13 promotional door to door pieces per year – 64 page Christmas gift guide; Vintages bi-weekly wine catalogue, etc) would have more impact, except of course that portion of the budget that pays for the “don’t drink and drive” ads. The LCBO produces some of the most expensive advertising product in the world and arranges to have it hand delivered to my door (along with the doors of millions of other Ontarians) before it proceeds, again hand delivered, to my recycling box unread. It is questionable to think that a single licence plate could be perceived as advertising for this new product, let alone encouraging drinking and driving.

When Rev. Jo was informed of these two objections, she was prepared to compromise and suggested changing her plates to “REVRNDJO.” This too was rejected, on the third ground for rejecting REV JO.

It is the third reason that causes the greatest concern. A group of unnamed government officials – not named to protect their privacy in the decision making process – decided it was inappropriate to potentially promote religion by means of Rev. Jo’s personalized licence plate. The group was backed up by Ontario Transportation Minister Jim Bradley who suggested that as a matter of road safety, “religion can lead to some heated arguments” and a bumper sticker was a more appropriate place for religious expression.

As Reverend Sorrill aptly stated, “This isn’t only about licence plates but, more importantly, what kind of society we want to be – an inclusive one or an exclusive one.”

Canada has a long history of being an inclusive society.

The Supreme Court of Canada has stated that “The protection of freedom of religion afforded by s. 2(a) of the Charter [of Rights and Freedoms] is broad and jealously guarded in our Charter jurisprudence.” In addition, both the Charter (section 15) and the Ontario Human Rights Code (section 1) explicitly provide for protection from discrimination by government because of religious belief.

Reverend Sorrill reportedly had an offer from a lawyer to carry this case into the judicial system.

After weeks of wrangling, before any legal action was required, Ontario’s Premier stepped in. Premier Dalton McGuinty said the decision to deny Sorrill the REV JO plates she's used for 19 years makes the government look laughable. He went on to say that the decision was not sensible, and will be changed to make sure Sorrill gets her plates.

The Premier did not indicate whether or not future vanity plate requests that might be considered religious in nature would be permitted. In an inclusive society that has constitutionally protected the right to freedom of religion and non-discrimination on the basis of religion, one would expect that non-offensive plates that have the potential to be perceived as promoting religion will be permissible. The bumper stickers are.

Don Hutchinson is General Legal Counsel for The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.




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