The Supreme Court of Canada is about to hear a case between the Alberta Government and Hutterian Brethren over the matter of requiring picture photos on drivers’ licenses. (See official case summary here.) The Brethren faith community are convinced that to allow their photos to be taken is a violation of the commandment in Exodus 20:4 (“You shall not make for yourself a graven image.”) Whether or not we agree with that interpretation of Exodus 20 is irrelevant; what is relevant is that this case will be precedent setting.
According to a letter I received from the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada today, the case is important for two reasons: 1) It is the first case in which the religious rights of a group are being tested (over against the individual right of freedom of religion already guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and by precedents in law by previous court challenges; and 2) “this case is about the right of an identifiable faith community (group) . . . to establish and maintain its statement and standard of faith in a manner that does not cause harm to anyone, without government interference.” As the EFC letter goes on to explain, if the Hutterian Brethren lose this case, then there is every possibility that a precedent will be set at the highest judicial level by which other faith communities–confessional churches, schools, mission organizations, and denominations–will be open to future legal challenges to have the right to set its own doctrinal standards.
Without claiming to understand the intricate legalities of this case, I, for one, am alarmed and gravely concerned at what a negative ruling in this case could mean for communal religious groups of any kind, whether Christian or not. If a religious community is forbidden from living in accord to its own fundamental convictions in doctrine and ethics, there will be only two basic options left: 1) To submit to the constitutional and judicial authority on specific issues with which we are challenged; or 2) Find ways to live in civil disobedience so that we can obey God, rather than man. The tricky part, of course, will be knowing when #1 is still living in obedience to God, and when #2 is necessary to remain faithful to God. In a paraphrase of Niebuhr’s prayer, May God give us wisdom and the courage to know the difference.
What word might we Christians have to say about this at this time?
Full disclosure: I am currently serving as a Board member of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and therefore take it as my responsibility to encourage you to consider supporting the EFC in prayer and even financial support (if you are able). The EFC legal team will act as an intervener to this case on October 7, 2008.