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A seeming blow to religious freedom in Canada will actually help religious groups to defend their practices from discrimination claims, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) has said.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in July that a small Anabaptist group of Hutterian Brethren must have their photos taken for their driver's licenses.

The Alberta Hutterites had argued that such photos would force them to violate God's command not to make graven images. The government argued that granting the exemptions would hinder its efforts to reduce identity fraud.

The Supreme Court sided with Alberta in a 4-3 split. "The cost of not being able to drive on the highway … does not rise to the level of depriving the claimants of a meaningful choice as to their religious practice," wrote Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin.

The court wrongly accepted that granting the Hutterites an exemption would lead to identity fraud, said Thomas Berg, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. Only 250 Hutterites have sought the exemption since the law went into effect in 1974. Meanwhile, 700,000 Albertans do not have a license and, therefore, a photo on record.

"The only way to take religious freedom seriously is to [question] whether the government's action here was really necessary," Berg said. "If you don't ask that, the government is going to win."

But Don Hutchinson, legal counsel for the EFC, said the case was ultimately a positive step because while the justices split on license photos, they unanimously agreed that freedom of religion has an "identifiable collective aspect."

Hutchinson said the court’s precedent will help in ongoing cases like that of Christian Horizons, a ministry to the disabled. Last year the Ontario Human ...

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October 2009

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