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In wake of court ruling, Hutterites contemplate leaving Alberta

Two Alberta Hutterite colonies are contemplating flouting the law or leaving the province in the wake of a Supreme Court decision that requires their faces to be photographed for drivers' licenses.

Due to religious objections, Hutterites in Alberta had been exempt from having their likeness appear on licenses since 1974. Starting in 2003, however, the provincial government mandated that every driver - Hutterites included - would have to have their photograph entered into a central database.

Charges of religious persecution sparked a lengthy court battle, which ended last week with a 4-3 decision in favour of the Alberta government.

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Members of the Three Hills and Wilson colonies in Alberta say the decision has placed them in a tough but familiar spot: deciding whether to choose their interpretation of God's law, or the state's law.

In the past, they have generally chosen God before country, triggering centuries of migration across Europe and North America. In light of the most recent Court decision, some are considering another move.

"I hope it doesn't come to that point [having to leave Alberta] but we are discussing that right now," said Samuel Wurz, manager of the Three Hills Hutterite colony northeast of Calgary. "We haven't decided yet what course of action we will take. It seems the only real option if we stay is not to drive. That is impractical. You can hardly survive without driving these days."

Hutterites are part of a Christian sect that believes in strict pacifism and a close alignment to the Ten Commandments.

Mr. Wurz's objection stems from a strict interpretation of the second commandment: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image."

Based on the statement, most Hutterite colonies long espoused a total ban on photography. But over the past decade or so, most have become less stringent, only barring pictures that are posed.

"As long as the picture is taken in a natural way, most colonies allow it," said John Hofer, author of The History of the Hutterites , and member of the James Valley colony west of Winnipeg.

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The two dissenting colonies belong to a conservative faction of the Dariusleut kinship group, the smallest of the three Hutterite divisions. Unlike many other colonies, they maintain a total ban on radios, televisions and computers. Colony members share just one cell phone. And they believe any law forcing them to violate their strict rules constitutes state-imposed religious intolerance.

"It's total discrimination," said John Wurz, manager of the Wilson Colony. "The licenses are for driving, not identification."

The Hutterites moved to Canada en masse starting in 1918, forced out by U.S. conscription laws that contravened the group's devout pacifism. "Our people moved here because we were promised freedom of religion," said Samuel Wurz. "Up until now we thanked the Lord and the government for keeping the promise. But now this. They've broken the promise."

Colony members have also discussed driving with no licenses and simply paying the ensuing fines. They might also hire outside drivers.

"We don't like that idea very much," Samuel Wurz said. "If the drivers smoke, or drink or have radios, that's a bad influence on our young people."

Provincial governments in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario allow photo exemptions for religious reasons. Alberta government representatives could not be reached for comment Sunday, but they have argued that non-photo identification presents a security risk. The province is giving the colonies a grace period before they must comply with the new rules.

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About the Author
National reporter

Patrick previously worked in the Globe's Winnipeg bureau, covering the Prairies and Nunavut, and at Toronto City Hall. He is a National Magazine Award recipient and author of the book Mountie In Mukluks. More

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