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Hutterites, Photo ID, Religious Freedom, and the Local Church
The impact could affect your congregation, denomination or organization.

So what does a case involving Hutteries in Alberta have to do with the religious freedoms of a church? Quite a lot, actually! The case concerns what protection religious communities, like churches, have under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That is why we at The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and the Christian Legal Fellowship will be in Court when the lawyers for the Hutterites face lawyers from the Alberta government, three other provinces and the government of Canada.

[This case asks] whether the religious beliefs and practices of a community or a congregation have any standing and protection under the Charter…

The case is about a Hutterite colony that wants an exemption for some of its members from the requirement to have photo I.D. on their driver’s license. They believe having their photograph taken violates the second of the Ten Commandments – “You shall not make for yourself a graven image.” Others are concerned that accommodating the Hutterites will open the flood gates to demands for what some regard as mere religious preference.

We should all be concerned about how we, as a society, understand religious freedom. What limits do we think appropriate on the state’s impulse to compel conformity? And what practices of people and groups should be tolerated or accommodated? When the Supreme Court of Canada agrees to hear a case where the rights of a religious community – and so perhaps defining the rights of all religious communities in Canada – are at stake, it is important to be present and assist the court in its deliberations (see the EFC/CLF factum).

When dealing with religious freedom under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, courts have interpreted the protections from government interference mostly in terms of individual rights, rather than as affording community rights. But how will religious freedom guarantees from state intervention be applied to a religious community and, by extension, denominations, ministry organizations and local congregations?

In this case, the refusal to have a photograph taken poses no harm to the members of the community, does not involve a practice that contravenes the criminal code, and can be reasonably accommodated. At least four other provinces provide an exemption and, up until a few years ago, the Alberta government exempted Hutterites from the photo requirement until the government changed its mind – a policy change that was not prompted by a problem with the Hutterites.

Of course, having a driver’s license is not essential. Or is it? For some, being able to drive is a convenience. We have other means of transportation readily available to us. But for others, their livelihood depends on their ability to drive.

For people in rural areas, having a license or having someone close by who can drive may well be a matter of life and death. The Wilson Colony of Hutterian Brethren is intentionally separate from the broader society, living out their interpretation of Acts chapter 2, verses 42 to 47. They are living as a community, sharing all things in common, and living a life that they believe is consistent with the practices of the early church. Only a few of their members have driver’s licenses and they require them to work the land, bring their produce to market, and for medical emergencies, etc. Without driver’s licenses, this communal way of life will be threatened and the communal expression of their faith, integral to who they understand themselves to be, will be lost. Without a Wilson Colony, there can be no Wilson member.

At issue before the Supreme Court is whether religious communities, denominations, and churches must conform to the values and expectations of a secular society and mirror its values in their life together. In other words, is Canada a society whose standards include the ability of communities to live peaceably according to their own beliefs and morality? These are hard questions and our governments and courts will answer them one way or another – the issue is whether we will be part of the deliberations.

The key question here is this: do religious freedom protections include the ability of a group to distinguish themselves from the broader society and hold one another to account according to their shared faith, and to not be unreasonably restricted or thwarted by the state? Is the religious freedom of a group more than simply the individual rights of its members? If not, then the claim of an individual or the force of a government regulation will always supersede the ability of the religious community to define its practices and to expect its members to adhere to those practices in accordance with the religious beliefs of the community – be it colony, congregation, order or organization.

A low tolerance for affirming the freedoms of religious communities will make it increasingly difficult for religious organizations to expect their members to adhere to a statement of faith, standards and practices that may differ from those of the broader society.

We must ask ourselves, as the morality of society changes, will Christians have the freedom to live differently, according to the principles of Scripture, not just as individuals but as congregations and ministries? If the Wilson Colony is protected by the Charter, will this mean that other religious communities will also enjoy religious freedom? Certainly, for this is the fruit of the human rights tradition and the affirmation of the freedom of religion and conscience that was birthed out of the Christian understanding of the dignity of every human person and the ability of individuals and communities to pursue truth and follow their consciences before God.

The Wilson Colony seeks to live as a distinct community, following the tenets of their shared faith, living at peace yet not completely cut off from the broader society. This case does not involve accommodating criminal activity (like polygamy) or recognizing alternative legal systems (like Shari’a law). It does ask whether the religious beliefs and practices of a community or a congregation have any standing and protection under the Charter and carry any weight in a country once so heavily shaped by religious communities. If we cannot accommodate religious communities that pose no threat, break no law and which seek to live out their faith in peace and integrity, then our religious freedoms are fleeting indeed.

Bruce J. Clemenger, is the president of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada




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