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In 2003, Alberta terminated the exemptions it previously offered to drivers who objected to licence photos on religious grounds.[1] The Hutterites interpret the Second Commandment to forbid them from having their photos taken and therefore objected to the change of policy as a violation of their right to freedom of religion under subsection 2(a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.[2] Alberta conceded this point, but argued that this infringement was justified according to the three-step test in R. v. Oakes for establishing the justification of a legislative measure under section 1 of the Charter.[3] Although the Hutterites were successful at trial and at the Alberta Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court of Canada narrowly upheld Alberta’s amendment as a reasonable limit on the Hutterites’ rights.[4]

Hutterian Brethren is noteworthy for its lengthy discussion of the last step of the Oakes test, which requires proportionality between a measure’s salutary and deleterious effects.[5] This step had not previously played a significant role.[6] Nevertheless, Chief Justice McLachlin affirmed that the third step of the Oakes test provided the critical methodological framework to assess Alberta’s regulation. On this basis, she then concluded that the salutary effects of Alberta’s amendment outweighed its detrimental effects on the Hutterite claimants’ rights. Justice Abella, who wrote the principal dissent, also affirmed the critical significance of the third step but concluded that the regulation’s deleterious effects outweighed its marginal security benefits. Justice LeBel in a separate dissent, supported by Justice Fish, called for a return to the centrality of the Court’s minimal impairment test, but did not elaborate on the conclusions the minimal impairment test would have called for in this instance.

In this article, I consider whether the Court’s emphasis on the last step of the Oakes test was an appropriate response to the specific minimal impairment argument Alberta presented. The minimal impairment test requires the government to demonstrate that its impugned law impairs the right in question no more than is necessary to accomplish its desired objective.[7] The Court accepted that Alberta’s objective in terminating its exemptions was to “[maintain] the integrity of the driver’s licensing system in a way that minimize[d] the risk of identity theft.”[8] However, in its minimal impairment submissions, Alberta clearly stated that continuing to offer the exemption to Hutterites and other sincere religious believers would not undermine this objective. Alberta’s position was, rather, that it could not safely offer this exemption after Syndicat Northcrest v. Amselem, a Supreme Court of Canada decision restricting judicial—and presumably also governmental—inquiries into the sincerity of religious beliefs.[9] Alberta thus concluded that an amendment terminating exemptions constituted a minimal impairment of the Hutterites’ rights. Ontario intervened in support of Alberta’s concerns; it then addressed them by proposing an alternative exemption model that it acknowledged potentially contravened Amselem.

This article argues that Ontario’s and Alberta’s reading of Amselem was unnecessarily strict, and that the Court, by failing to analyze this reading, missed a critical opportunity to assess how Amselem’s guidelines would apply in this context. This argument proceeds in three sections. Section I discusses the Amselem test for the demonstration of sincere belief, reviewing the framework Justice Iacobucci put in place as well as the questions he left open for future litigation. Section II describes the shadow Amselem cast over the Hutterian Brethren litigation by recounting Alberta’s and Ontario’s concerns with Amselem and the Court’s response to these submissions. Section III argues that Alberta and Ontario construed Amselem unnecessarily strictly, and proposes an exemption that would, it argues, cohere with Amselem while protecting Alberta’s objectives. Such an exemption would have met the minimal impairment test and made it unnecessary for the Court to turn to the proportionate effects test in this instance.

What is at stake in this extended treatment of a line of argument to which the Court did not respond? Clashes between laws of general application and minority religious practices are likely to escalate in the future as a result of broad factors such as the growth of the administrative state,[10] the development of technologies that may aid the state in addressing security concerns,[11] the rise of immigration from communities with different conceptions of the significance of seemingly neutral requirements,[12] and the greater secularization of Canadian society as a whole.[13] In Hutterian Brethren, the Court chose to consider such clashes in the third step of the Oakes test rather than the second. But the provinces’ concern as to the proper application of the Amselem ruling demonstrates the critical role the minimal impairment test plays in responding to these escalating tensions; it is at this stage in the analysis that the Court can scrutinize the legislature’s reasons for not providing an alternative and remove any barriers that may have arisen due to uncertainty as to the nature or scope of the Charter guarantee. If the Court does not respond to these questions at this stage, it may restrict the legislature’s ability to protect all of its citizens and the rights they bear.

I. The Amselem Test for Sincere Religious Belief

This section reviews the framework for freedom of religion that Justice Iacobucci set out in Amselem, considering in particular how this framework applied to the particular facts of this case as well as the guidelines it provided for future litigation. It concludes by noting some particular issues Amselem left unresolved—issues squarely raised by Alberta and Ontario in Hutterian Brethren. It is important to lay out the facts and reasoning in Amselem in some detail in this section, as the sections that follow will return to these passages to assess Alberta’s and Ontario’s readings of Amselem, as well as the constitutionality of my proposed exemption.

In Amselem, Orthodox Jews, who co-owned condominium units in Montreal, asserted a right to build a succah on their balconies to celebrate a nine-day festival.[14] The syndicate of co-ownership claimed that this action violated a bylaw prohibiting alterations of its balconies, and sought a permanent injunction prohibiting erection of these structures. It proposed that Jewish residents set up a communal succah in the garden instead.[15] The parties called experts at trial who differed as to whether Jewish law required Jews to erect individual succahs: the applicants’ expert, Rabbi Ohana, testified that the biblical obligation to dwell joyously in a succah required Jews to erect their own succahs when factors such as the transport of children meant that a communal succah would cause distress; the respondents’ expert, Rabbi Levy, denied that such factors obligated Jews to erect their own succahs.[16]

Justice Iacobucci held that the claimants’ rights to religious freedom had been violated. In doing so, he rejected the notion that the Court could determine a subsection 2(a) claim by assessing the doctrinal interpretations of competing religious authorities. Instead, he stressed the primacy of subjective articulations of belief over the objective endorsement of these beliefs:

[F]reedom of religion consists of the freedom to undertake practices and harbour beliefs, having a nexus with religion, in which an individual demonstrates he or she sincerely believes or is sincerely undertaking in order to connect with the divine or as a function of his or her spiritual faith, irrespective of whether a particular practice or belief is required by official religious dogma or is in conformity with the position of religious officials.[17]

Justice Iacobucci thus affirmed that subsection 2(a) protects sincere individual beliefs or practices even if a religious leader denies their significance.[18]

Justice Iacobucci then demarcated a complex spectrum of religious experiences that subsection 2(a) protects:

[P]rovided that an individual demonstrates that he or she sincerely believes that a certain practice or belief is experientially religious in nature in that it is either objectively required by the religion, or that he or she subjectively believes that it is required by the religion, or that he or she sincerely believes that the practice engenders a personal, subjective connection to the divine or to the subject or object of his or her spiritual faith, and as long as that practice has a nexus with religion, it should trigger the protection ... of s.2(a) of the Canadian Charter.[19]

This critical passage identified three potential sources of sincere religious belief. First, belief may arise from the objective requirements of a religion. Second, it may be based on a claimant’s subjective beliefs as to the objective requirements of a religion, affirming that practices whose obligatory nature is a matter of controversy within the religious community are also protected. Finally, beliefs are protected even if they have no basis in a religion’s objective requirements, as long as they have a “nexus with religion” and engender a subjective connection to the divine.

Justice Iacobucci’s first two categories seem relatively straightforward. With respect to the first category, most religions have a core group of uncontested objective requirements, such as attending worship services. The claimants in Amselem, on the other hand, seem to fall into the second category, since they believed that their religion mandated them to set up individual succahs in this instance, despite Rabbi Levy’s denial of this obligation. Justice Iacobucci’s third category—beliefs that “engende[r] a personal, subjective connection to the divine” and have a “nexus with religion”—is the most difficult to understand. This difficulty arises partly because the claimants in Amselem do not provide an example of this kind of belief. However, as I elaborate below, it is also because this category brings to light some of the deepest tensions involved in the liberal state’s protection of religion.

Justice Iacobucci provided two examples of believers who seem to fall into this third category:

Jewish women, for example, strictly speaking, do not have a biblically mandated “obligation” to dwell in a succah during the Succot holiday. If a woman, however, nonetheless sincerely believes that sitting and eating in a succah brings her closer to her Maker, is that somehow less deserving of recognition simply because she has no strict “obligation” to do so? ... Should an individual Jew, who may personally deny the modern relevance of the literal biblical “obligation” or “commandment”, be precluded from making a freedom of religion argument despite the fact that for some reason he or she sincerely derives a closeness to his or her God by sitting in a succah? Surely not.[20]

Justice Iacobucci’s two figures—the “observant Jewish woman” and the “liberal Jewish man”—represent two various responses of those who identify with a traditional religion while accepting certain modern liberal precepts. The “observant Jewish woman” may not sincerely believe that she is under an obligation to dwell in a succah, given traditional Judaism’s gender-based allocation of obligations. Yet she claims that subsection 2(a) should protect her adoption of practices traditional leaders require only of men. The “liberal Jewish man”, on the other hand, seems to be a man who is under traditional obligation to dwell in a succah (at least according to some rabbis), but has accepted secular precepts and, as a result, no longer believes he is under this obligation. He calls for subsection 2(a) to protect a practice that is fulfilling for him even though his interpretation of this practice no longer accords with orthodox precepts.

These figures illustrate the many complex ways religious identification may develop in a modern liberal state: the “observant Jewish woman” expresses a sincere belief in a practice, but is not recognized by the religion as the appropriate person to hold these beliefs; the “liberal Jewish man”, in contrast, meets the formal criteria for recognition, yet does not sincerely believe in the literal biblical obligation. For Justice Iacobucci, the liberal commitment to state neutrality clearly calls the state to protect a broader spectrum of religious experience than orthodox leaders would sanction. As Grimm similarly reflects, in a modern constitutional democracy, “religious freedom must not be turned into a protection of orthodoxy.”[21]

On a theoretical level, Justice Iacobucci’s judgement admirably attempts to protect religious practices in both their traditional and modern iterations. However, it also generates a complex practical problem: under Amselem, the court and the government cannot simply echo a religious leader’s identification of the beliefs and practices that merit protection. Rather, they must conduct their own assessment of whether particular practices merit protection under subsection 2(a). How is the court or government to assess the sincerity of these claims?

Justice Iacobucci set out some broad guidelines. First, he affirmed that the religious claimant had the burden of demonstrating sincere religious belief, and that the court was “qualified to inquire into sincerity of a claimant’s belief, where sincerity [was] in fact at issue.”[22] However, he cautioned that inquiries should be “as limited as possible” and were intended “only to ensure that a presently asserted religious belief is in good faith, neither fictitious nor capricious, and that it is not an artifice.”[23]

Justice Iacobucci then provided the following specific directions on a claimant’s use of objective evidence to demonstrate sincere belief:

A claimant may choose to adduce expert evidence to demonstrate that his or her belief is consistent with the practices and beliefs of other adherents of the faith. While such evidence may be relevant to a demonstration of sincerity, it is not necessary. Since the focus of the inquiry is not on what others view the claimant’s religious obligations as being, but rather what the claimant views these personal religious “obligations” to be, it is inappropriate to require expert opinions to show sincerity of religious belief. An “expert” or an authority on religious law is not the surrogate for an individual’s affirmation of what his or her religious beliefs are.[24]

Justice Iacobucci’s assertion that the court cannot require expert opinions as to the sincerity of religious belief seems consistent with his recognition of a complex spectrum of religious experiences. Requiring a claimant to provide evidence of a religious leader’s approval of the practice at issue turns freedom of religion into “a protection of orthodoxy.”[25]

The facts of Amselem enabled Justice Iacobucci to provide these guidelines without directly addressing two difficult and interrelated questions. The first question is what sort of evidence the court or state can request in order to assess sincerity of religious practice when sincerity is in fact at issue (sincerity of belief was hardly at issue in Amselem; as Ontario later submitted to the Supreme Court in Hutterian Brethren, it was highly unlikely anyone would want to build a succah for any reason other than sincere religious belief[26]). The second question is how broadly to construe Justice Iacobucci’s third category, the protection of practices that “engende[r] a personal, subjective connection to the divine” and have a “nexus with religion” (the Jewish claimants in Amselem did not provide examples of this category; instead, they claimed the right to a practice with a scriptural basis whose interpretation was contested within their religious community—Justice Iacobucci’s second category.) This third category could be interpreted broadly to protect idiosyncratic spiritual beliefs that are not associated with an identified religious community. If it is interpreted in this manner, to bring these two questions together, what evidence can the state require to assess a claim that is not associated with an identified religion, in a situation where sincerity is at issue, and the harm posed by an insincere claim is significant? This question formed the basis of Alberta’s and Ontario’s critiques of Amselem, to which we now turn.

II. The Shadow Amselem Cast over Hutterian Brethren

This section considers the Court’s minimal impairment analysis in Hutterian Brethren from the perspective of both the submissions and the ultimate ruling. Part A reviews Alberta’s and Ontario’s submissions to the Court. Alberta declared it was not possible for it to provide an exemption after Amselem. Ontario, after echoing Alberta’s concerns, proposed an alternative exemption model that set aside some of the central tenets of Amselem. Part B considers the Supreme Court of Canada’s response to these submissions, and suggests that, since the Court did not address Alberta’s and Ontario’s readings of Amselem, the debate between Chief Justice McLachlin and Justice Abella as to the extent to which the Court, in its minimal impairment analysis, should defer to Alberta was premature.

A. Alberta’s and Ontario’s Submissions

In its minimal impairment submissions, Alberta repeatedly admitted to the Court that it was able to offer an exemption to the Hutterites and other sincere religious believers without compromising its objectives:

We note that our concern is not the granting of an exception to people who assert a religious objection to the photograph requirement as such. Our concern is instead the opportunities that an exemption affords wrongdoers.[27]


[O]ur concern is not about numbers as such, or with the numbers of claims for exemption that might be made in good faith. Alberta increased the security of the Operator’s License because wrongdoers lie to take advantage of its currency as identification.[28]

In these passages, Alberta made clear that offering exemptions to sincere believers would not undermine the integrity of its licensing system. Alberta straightforwardly acknowledged that it could provide an exemption to the claimants at hand without impairing its objectives, as long as this exemption did not enable insincere claimants—“wrongdoers”—to apply successfully.

The province then argued that the reason it could not offer this exemption to the claimants before it was because Amselem restricted its ability to distinguish between sincere and insincere claimants:

Amselem implies structural constraints on any religious exemption from the photo requirement. The issue in this case is not whether the Respondents, as specific claimants, may safely be granted an exemption from the photo requirement. Rather, the issue is whether the Respondents and everyone else who is able to claim the benefit of religious freedom as described in Amselem may safely be granted an exemption from the photo requirement.


[T]he foundational characteristic of freedom of religion—its subjectivity—competes directly with the essential purpose of the photo requirement, which impedes those who would falsely obtain a driver’s licence.[29]

Alberta’s claim in these passages was that Amselem’s conception of religion as subjective situated fraudulent and sincere professions of religious belief within an identical structure: both articulated an idiosyncratic private sphere that was not objectively verifiable. It was thus not possible for the province to provide an exemption after Amselem.

Alberta’s reading of Amselem is troubling. How can the Charter prevent the government from distinguishing between fraudulent and sincere religious beliefs, given their dramatically different normative values to society? The presence of religious minorities is a value to be preserved,[30] while those who make fraudulent claims to obtain false documentation undermine the state’s ability to protect its citizens and should be prevented. Alberta thus problematically intimated in these passages that the Court’s construal of subsection 2(a) in Amselem prevented the province from recognizing the religious minorities the Charter obligates it to protect.

Ontario supported Alberta’s contentions, but proposed a different solution. It accepted that Amselem made it difficult for provinces to draft an exemption for the Hutterites without rendering themselves vulnerable to many false claims.[31] However, whereas Alberta declared it was categorically not possible for the province to provide this exemption after Amselem, Ontario suggested that Amselem should be distinguished to allow the province to craft a narrow and highly structured exemption in situations where sincerity of belief was at issue and the potential for harm from an insincere profession of belief was great.[32]

Ontario presented its own exemption to the photo-licence requirement as an example of such an exemption. Ontario currently provides exemptions to applicants who can establish the following three indicia of sincere religious belief:

  1. Membership in a registered religious organization that prohibits personal photographs.

  2. A letter of support from a religious leader of this organization.

  3. Scriptural passages that substantiate the religious prohibition.[33]

Although Ontario’s courts have yet to rule on the constitutionality of Ontario’s exemption,[34] each prong seems to challenge Amselem:

  1. The requirement of membership in a community that prohibits personal photographs undermines Justice Iacobucci’s affirmation that subsection 2(a) protects practices the obligatory nature of which is a matter of controversy.[35]

  2. The requirement of a religious leader’s letter contradicts Justice Iacobucci’s exhortation that it was “inappropriate to require expert opinions to show sincerity of religious belief.”[36]

  3. The requirement that the claimant’s belief be substantiated by a scriptural passage seems to create a narrower basis for protection than Amselem’s broad protection of practices that have a “nexus with religion”.[37]

Ontario admitted in its factum to the Court that this model “appear[ed], on its face, to be inconsistent with this Court’s reasons in Amselem.[38] However, it argued that the Court should distinguish the guidelines in Amselem to recognize Ontario’s model in this circumstance since—unlike in Amselem—the potential harm posed by an insincere claim was significant.[39] Ontario concluded by stating that, “Ontario agrees with Alberta that, if Amselem precludes the limited approach used in Ontario’s PVWP, then no exemption would be the only alternative that would meet the province’s policy objectives.”[40]

Ontario’s proposal reflects an attempt to escape the constitutional irony of Alberta’s position, discussed above, in which the Court’s definition of freedom of religion prevented the province from protecting the claimants before it. Nevertheless, it still accepts as its starting point both Amselem’s subjective definition of freedom of religion and Alberta’s understanding of Amselem’s restrictions on state inquiries into sincerity of belief. As a result, Ontario’s alternative is underinclusive, since not all the believers whom Justice Iacobucci stated merited protection would be able to meet its criteria.[41]

This underinclusiveness can be demonstrated through a story that has circulated about an application Ontario reportedly denied.[42] An Old Order Amish man applied for Ontario’s exemption, and included in his application a letter from a church elder who confirmed the religious prohibition against photographs, but stated that the Amish religion also prohibited driving a car. The church elder then asserted that if the applicant was prepared to violate religious precepts by driving a car, he should have no objection to having his photo taken. Ontario reportedly denied the Amish man’s application on the basis of this letter.[43] However, one could speculate that the Amish man in this story sincerely believed in the prohibition against taking photographs, and yet did not sincerely believe in the prohibition against driving. Perhaps both prohibitions are contested, or perhaps the applicant had a need to drive that he reconciled with his faith in a manner not accepted by the church elder. In such cases, Ontario’s exemption may turn into a “protection of orthodoxy”, in that it enables the positions of orthodox leaders to hold sway even if the individual claimants can demonstrate the sincerity of their beliefs.

Of course, since the claimants in Hutterian Brethren easily met Ontario’s criteria, it was open for the Court to accept Ontario’s exemption and leave the question of the claimants potentially excluded from it for another day. Nevertheless, in Section III, I consider whether Ontario’s proposal could be modified to better protect the full spectrum of religious practices Justice Iacobucci identified in Amselem.

B. The Supreme Court of Canada’s Response

The Supreme Court of Canada did not address Alberta’s and Ontario’s concerns with Amselem in Hutterian Brethren. Instead, Chief Justice McLachlin’s majority judgment and Justice Abella’s principal dissent each accepted Alberta’s proposition that providing an exemption would undermine its objective of ensuring the integrity of its licensing system, while diverging on the extent of the risk that providing an exemption would pose to this objective.

Chief Jusice McLachlin began her minimal impairment analysis by claiming that this case called for her to accord the legislature a measure of judicial deference, since this was a “complex social issu[e] where the legislature may be better positioned than the courts to choose among a range of alternatives.”[44] The chief justice accorded Alberta this deference by refusing to calculate the precise extent to which providing an exemption undermined Alberta’s objectives:

The claimants’ argument that the reduction in risk would be low, since few people are likely to request exemption from the photo requirement, assumes that some increase in risk and impairment of the government goal may occur, and hence does not assist at the stage of minimal impairment.[45]

Chief Justice McLachlin then concluded that even though it was “difficult to quantify in exact terms how much risk of fraud would result from permitted exemptions, it [was] clear that the internal integrity of the system would be compromised” by an exemption.[46]

Chief Justice McLachlin’s commitment to supporting the legislative process led her to conclude that the minimal impairment analysis should no longer be considered the critical framework for assessing whether infringements of freedom of religion were justified:

Freedom of religion cases may often present this “all or nothing” dilemma. Compromising religious beliefs is something adherents may understandably be unwilling to do. And governments may find it difficult to tailor laws to the myriad ways in which they may trench on different people’s religious beliefs and practices. The result may be that the justification of a limit on the right falls to be decided not at the point of minimal impairment, which proceeds on the assumption that the state goal is valid, but at the stage of proportionality of effects.[47]

In this critical passage, the chief justice charts a new course for subsection 2(a) litigation, based on the difficulty of governments “tailoring” laws so as not to infringe the myriad of beliefs found in Canada’s multicultural society. Yet in charting this new course, Chief Justice McLachlin did not address the particular reason Alberta found it difficult to tailor this exemption.

Justice Abella criticized Chief Justice McLachlin’s approach as overly deferential, but she also did not consider Alberta’s specific concern with Amselem. Instead, Justice Abella stressed that the government had the onus of proving that the risk posed by an exemption was significant in practice, and determined that in this case, Alberta had not met this burden: there was “no evidence from the government to suggest ... why the exemption [was] no longer feasible, or so dramatically obstructs the government’s objective that it cannot be re-instated.”[48] In coming to this conclusion, Justice Abella did not reference Alberta’s argument that an exemption was no longer feasible given the strictures of Amselem. Likewise, Justice Abella would have declared Alberta’s mandatory photo requirement unconstitutional, “in the absence of the availability of an exemption on religious grounds,”[49] but she did not offer guidance as to how Alberta could draft such an exemption in a manner that cohered with Amselem.

It is tempting to attribute Chief Justice McLachlin and Justice Abella’s contrasting approaches to the minimal impairment test to their different positions in the Court’s well-known debate as to the appropriate level of deference to the legislature: Chief Justice McLachlin called for strong deference while Justice Abella affirmed the state’s burden to substantiate its projection of risks.[50] However, it seems to me that Alberta’s and Ontario’s particular concerns should have attracted more attention. Alberta did not argue that judicial crafting of an exemption would burden its legislative role. Rather, Alberta claimed that the Court’s past jurisprudence restricted its ability to continue to provide an exemption on religious grounds, even though the religious minority requesting the exemption posed no risk. It sought guidance from the Court on an issue squarely within the Court’s expertise and institutional competence. Such guidance would have supported Alberta’s legislative function, rather than curtailed it.

III. An Exemption for Sincere Believers

In this section, I consider how the Court could have responded to Alberta’s and Ontario’s concerns. Part A provides an alternative interpretation of Amselem, different from that of Alberta and Ontario, and proposes a three-pronged exemption that modifies Ontario’s proposal according to this reading. Part B elaborates on how each prong of this proposal coheres with Amselem’s restrictions on state inquiries into religious practice as I understand them. Part C argues that Alberta and Ontario could have provided this exemption without impairing their objective of protecting identity fraud, considering their articulations of this objective as well as Canadian and American case law on this issue. Finally, Part D speculates as to whether, had the Court been provided with this alternative, Chief Justice McLachlin would have nevertheless maintained that Alberta met the minimal impairment test by refusing to provide an exemption, given the emphasis she placed on deference in her minimal impairment analysis.

A. Drafting an Exemption

Before setting out my proposed exemption, it is necessary to return to Alberta’s and Ontario’s interpretations of Amselem and consider them in more detail. Alberta stated in its submissions to the Court that “[t]he subjective character of [the conception of religious freedom in Amselem] implies that a person who claims a religious objection to the photo requirement with apparent conviction is presumptively entitled to an exemption.”[51] Ontario similarly argued that “[u]nless the province can rely on the kind of objective criteria apparently rejected by this Court in Amselem, it cannot offer a religious exemption.”[52] Alberta and Ontario thus read Amselem to prohibit the use of evidence to determine the subjective sincerity of belief.

This interpretation does not seem to me to follow necessarily from Justice Iacobucci’s reasoning in Amselem. As discussed in Section I, Justice Iacobucci contemplated that a claimant’s beliefs would be objectively verified in several passages. First, he asserted that freedom of religion should not be protected beyond the ability of claimants to demonstrate sincere belief, defining freedom of religion as the freedom “to undertake practices and harbour beliefs, having a nexus with religion, in which an individual demonstrates that he or she sincerely believes.”[53] Although he cautioned that these inquiries should be “as limited as possible”,[54] he stressed that the Court was “qualified to inquire into the sincerity of a claimant’s belief, where sincerity [was] in fact at issue.”[55] Applying these guidelines, Justice Iacobucci declined to assess the claimants’ beliefs rigorously as to their obligation to erect individual succahs. However, as Ontario noted, sincerity was not at issue in this case since it was unlikely anyone would insincerely claim a right to build a succah.[56] Since the sincerity of applicants for an exemption from a photo-licence requirement is at issue, it is difficult to see how Amselem prohibits a more comprehensive inquiry.

How could a more comprehensive inquiry be structured? Further in his judgment, Justice Iacobucci made clear that a claimant could choose to adduce any supporting material that would prove sincerity of belief, such as letters from religious leaders, expert opinions, evidence of established practices, evidence that the alleged belief was consistent with other current religious practices, or general evidence supporting credibility.[57] He imposed only one restriction: the assessor could not require expert opinion—or, presumably, any other particular indicia of religious belief.[58] Thus, Amselem did not limit the use of evidence to determine the subjective sincerity of belief; rather, it prohibited the province from requiring that claimants prove that their leaders unanimously approved of their particular manifestations of the belief at issue.[59]

The following exemption modifies Ontario’s proposal in order to bring it in line with the guidelines in Amselem:

For an applicant to be granted an exemption to the photo-licence requirement, he or she must demonstrate sincere religious belief by establishing:

  1. Membership in a religious community:

    This may be demonstrated by a letter of support from an established member of this community or by other indicia of community membership.

  2. That the objection to photographs arises from membership in this religious community:

    This may be demonstrated by evidence as to the origins or basis of these practices, for example in religious texts.

  3. Individual commitment to the practice of abstaining from taking photographs:

    This may be demonstrated by evidence of past or current practice.

The exemption stipulates that the applicant has the onus of demonstrating sincere belief, which it divides into three distinct elements. It then provides examples of what kinds of evidence the applicant could adduce to demonstrate each of these elements. However, instead of singling out any piece of evidence as determinative, it enables the applicant to choose what evidence at the applicant’s disposal would best satisfy these criteria. The province would then assess whether this evidence, in its totality, met the burden of demonstrating sincere belief.

B. Does this Exemption Cohere with Amselem?

The first question to consider, in assessing the feasibility of my proposed exemption, is whether it is consistent with Amselem. In this section, I evaluate each prong of my exemption according to this standard.

Prong A: Membership in a Religious Community

Prong A requires the claimant to prove membership in a particular religious community. This raises the question of whether such a requirement is consistent with Amselem’s broad protection of beliefs that “engender[s] a personal, subjective connection to the divine” (Justice Iacobucci’s third category).[60] As discussed in the conclusion to Section I, Justice Iacobucci did not make clear how broadly he was willing to construe this nexus. In other passages, he described religion in individualistic terms, noting, for example, that freedom of religion “revolves around the notion of personal choice and individual autonomy and freedom.”[61] Alberta and Ontario both expressed concern that this third category enabled Justice Iacobucci to protect idiosyncratic spiritual beliefs, making it easier for fraudulent claimants to claim an exemption.[62] However, in this section, I argue that, despite some of the individualistic language used in Amselem, this decision did not protect beliefs that emerge in isolation for three reasons.

First, Amselem did not provide the appropriate factual basis for the Court to consider protecting idiosyncratic religious beliefs, since the claimants belonged to a discrete religious community. Rather, at issue in Amselem was whether the claimants had the right to observe individually the precept of building a succah, or whether collective observance of this practice (in a communal succah) would suffice. Responding to these facts, Justice Iacobucci protected a range of doctrinal interpretations regarding the obligations a Jewish holiday imposed on individual adherents.[63] However, the facts did not enable him to consider whether religious beliefs that emerge in isolation are protected.[64]

Second, the critical passage in which Justice Iacobucci stressed the significance of preserving individual spiritual beliefs is heavily qualified. Recall this passage, discussed above, in which Justice Iacobucci demarcated three potential sources of religious belief:

[P]rovided that an individual demonstrates that he or she sincerely believes that a certain practice or belief is experientially religious in nature in that it is either objectively required by the religion, or that he or she subjectively believes that it is required by the religion, or that he or she sincerely believes that the practice engenders a personal, subjective connection to the divine or to the subject or object of his or her spiritual faith, and as long as the practice has a nexus with religion, it should trigger the protection ... of s. 2(a) of the Canadian Charter.[65]

Justice Iacobucci stipulated here that subsection 2(a) protects beliefs where “the practice engenders a personal, subjective connection to the divine”—a quotation which admittedly raises the spectre of “religions of one.” However, Justice Iacobucci immediately qualified this broad protection with the clause, “[A]s long as the practice has a nexus with religion.” Thus, Justice Iacobucci did not demarcate a protection for “spiritual” beliefs that emerge in isolation from “religion”. Since Justice Iacobucci did not define these terms, the question is whether “religion” includes those with only one adherent. This interpretation seems doubtful to me because it would rob Justice Iacobucci’s qualification of any content; his qualification would now read as an assertion that subsection 2(a) protects beliefs that engender a subjective connection to the divine as long as they have a nexus with beliefs that are idiosyncratic. Furthermore, Justice Iacobucci used the word “religion” in a manner synonymous with religious communities elsewhere in this passage. For example, his assertion that subsection 2(a) protects practices that are subjectively believed to be “required by the religion” would not make sense if Justice Iacobucci imagined that it was possible for “religion” to consist of one person’s spiritual beliefs, because in this case there would be no conflict between this person’s subjective beliefs and the religion’s objective requirements. A reading of this passage as protecting idiosyncratic religious beliefs is, therefore, difficult to sustain in context.

Finally, Amselem did not engage with judicial and academic treatments of this issue. On the judicial side, courts have struggled with how to interpret subsection 2(a)’s dual protection of “freedom of conscience and religion”. Put simply, is religious thought one form of individual conscientious thought, in which case idiosyncratic spiritual beliefs should be protected? Or can religious thought be distinguished from conscientious thought on the ground that it emerges collectively? In the Supreme Court of Canada’s foundational cases on subsection 2(a), it stressed the similarity between religious and conscientious thought: Chief Justice Dickson affirmed in R. v. Big M Drug Mart Ltd. that the purpose of protecting freedom of religion is “the notion of the centrality of individual conscience”;[66] in Edwards Books he similarly described freedom of religion as containing “both individual and collective aspects.”[67] However, since these early cases, the Court has rarely engaged with freedom of conscience as distinct from freedom of religion, and there is no majority judgment on the issue.[68]

The critical literature is likewise conflicted. Whereas some assert that “a belief that is spiritual does not need to be shared by anyone else, as long as it is sincerely held,”[69] others stress that the protection of religion rests on the view that religious beliefs “are an integral part of the individual’s cultural identity or membership.”[70] This tension reflects two competing rationales for protecting freedom of religion: the first is the liberal commitment to freeing autonomous individual beliefs from state interference,[71] and the second involves protecting minority groups.[72] The conundrum is this: if religious choice is viewed simply as an expression of private conscience, what distinguishes religious and secular beliefs? As Jeremy Webber reflects, “a definition that treats religious freedom as merely a special case of the freedom to choose one’s conception of the good fails to account sufficiently for the singling out of religion.”[73]

Returning to the particular context of Hutterian Brethren, the question at hand is whether Amselem closed the door to an exemption that would require applicants to demonstrate identification with a particular religious community. Ontario and Alberta seemed to believe it had, but given the facts Amselem responded to, Justice Iacobucci’s carefully qualified statements on this point, and the decision’s failure to engage with the line of judicial and critical scholarship outlined above, I would disagree. The question of whether beliefs that are not shared by a community are protected by subsection 2(a) remains to be litigated on the proper factual foundation.

Prong B: That the Practice Arises from Membership in this Religious Community

The second prong in my model requires the claimant to establish that the practice at issue is identified with the claimant’s religious community. This prong is reminiscent of Ontario’s requirement that the religious organization “prohibit” personal photographs.[74] As discussed in Section II, however, the requirement of a prohibition did not seem consistent with Justice Iacobucci’s assertion in Amselem that subsection 2(a) should not “protec[t] only those aspects of religious belief or conduct that are objectively recognized by religious experts as being obligatory tenets or precepts of a particular religion.”[75] In contrast, my proposal affirms Amselem’s protection of religious practices that are not obligatory or whose obligatory nature is contested within the religious community.

Prong C: Individual Commitment to the Practice

This prong requires the claimant to demonstrate commitment to the practice at issue by providing evidence of past or current practice. Alberta seemed to conclude that such a requirement was inconsistent with Amselem. Alberta claimed, for example, that after Amselem, “a person who claims a religious objection to the photo requirement with apparent conviction [was] presumptively entitled to an exemption.”[76]

Alberta likely drew this conclusion from a passage in Amselem in which Justice Iacobucci stressed that a claim should not fail on the grounds that the claimant’s past commitment to this practice was not entirely consistent. The issue arose in Amselem because some of the claimants had not erected individual succahs in previous years, choosing instead to celebrate the holiday at the households of family members.[77] In response, Justice Iacobucci made clear that this variation in practice did not render the claimant’s claim specious. He explained that it was

[i]nappropriate ... [to] rigorously study and focus on the past practices of claimants in order to determine whether their current beliefs are sincerely held. Over the course of a lifetime, individuals change and so can their beliefs.[78]

Alberta seemed to extrapolate from this passage that because Amselem prohibited scrutiny of a claimant’s past practice, a claimant who professed a certain belief but could not provide evidence of past practice supporting this belief would succeed.

However, this passage in Amselem does not render evidence of past practice irrelevant to the determination of a claim’s sincerity. Justice Iacobucci made clear that religious practices evolve slowly—over a lifetime—and thus it should be rare for a claimant who is not able to offer any evidence of past practice to succeed. Furthermore, considering the facts of Amselem from which Justice Iacobucci’s statement arose, the claimants had demonstrated a past commitment to this holiday by observing it with family members. The issue in Amselem was the interpretation of the biblical commandment to dwell joyously in a succah, and the particular question before the Court was whether the claimants sincerely believed that erecting a communal succah in the garden of the condominium would not satisfy this obligation. The fact that claimants had chosen to celebrate the holiday in the past in the individual succahs of their family members did not undermine the sincerity of their claim that sharing a succah with all condominium members would infringe their beliefs.

Prong C of my proposed exemption is therefore in line with Justice Iacobucci’s exhortation in Amselem that a believer’s evolving manifestations of religious belief over time should not be subjected to mechanical state scrutiny. In practice, it would mean that that the Old Order Amish man’s application, discussed above, would not fail on the basis that his past practices with respect to driving were inconsistent with his past practices with respect to photographs, as long as the claimant could also provide sufficient evidence demonstrating his membership in an Amish community (prong A) that objects to the practice of taking photographs (prong B).[79]

To conclude, although my proposed exemption develops Amselem’s guidelines to suit a more complex context, it does not contradict Justice Iacobucci’s reasoning in this case or the conclusions he drew based on the facts before him.

C. Does this Exemption Undermine Alberta’s Objectives?

The next issue to consider is whether my proposed exemption would enable Alberta and Ontario to meet their objectives of protecting against identity fraud. After all, even if this exemption cohered with Amselem, if it did not provide the province with sufficient criteria to distinguish sincere from insincere claims, it would have no potential to alter the Court’s minimal impairment analysis in Hutterian Brethren. In this part, I address this issue by considering how my exemption would enable the provinces to distinguish between insincere claimants and the three kinds of sincere claimants Justice Iacobucci identified in Amselem.

Recall that Justice Iacobucci first asserted that subsection 2(a) protects those whose practices or beliefs were “objectively required by the religion.”[80] This category protects members of an organized religion with a recognized record of objecting to the photograph requirement, such as the Amish, Molokans, and Hutterites.[81] It would be very difficult for an insincere believer to provide evidence of membership in such a group (prong A), since these communities isolate themselves from modern secular society in many other respects and have a well-documented commitment to the practice of not taking photographs. As a result, this model would easily enable Alberta and Ontario to identify those who insincerely claim to be members of such religions.

Second, Justice Iacobucci declared that subsection 2(a) protects claimants who sincerely believe a practice is required by their religion, even if this belief is contested by some religious leaders. The American case of Quaring v. Nebraska (Department of Motor Vehicles) demonstrates how the provinces might determine the sincerity of such a claimant.[82] Quaring was a Pentecostal Christian woman who had long believed that the Bible prohibited the taking of photographs; consequently, she possessed no family photos, did not take pictures of her own wedding, refused to allow any photography in her home, and removed labels displaying pictures on foodstuffs. Although some branches of the Pentecostal Church subscribe to such a belief, it was not shared by Quaring’s local church community. As a result, it is unlikely Quaring would have been able to satisfy Ontario’s current requirements for an exemption, since she would not have been able to offer a letter of support from a religious leader in her community. However, under my proposed exemption, Quaring could have demonstrated that she belonged to a local Pentecostal church (prong A), that her beliefs were rooted in traditional Pentecostal teachings (prong B), and that she had a long history of abstaining from taking photographs (prong C). Given the amount of evidence a sincere believer such as Quaring would have been required to proffer under this model, it is unlikely that an insincere claimant could similarly demonstrate adherence to a veritable religious practice.[83]

Third, Justice Iacobucci protected under subsection 2(a) “a person who sincerely believes that [a] practice engenders a personal, subjective connection to the divine,” as long as these beliefs have a “nexus with religion.”[84] As discussed in the conclusion of Section I, this category raised particular concerns for Ontario and Alberta, since an insincere claimant would likely claim that his beliefs were also protected under this category.

In Ontario’s submissions to the Court, it stated that the Bothwell case illustrated this concern.[85] Bothwell expressed uneasiness with Ontario’s policy of taking all licence photos with a digital camera and storing them in a database. After being informed that Ontario only provided exemptions for religious objections, he claimed that his “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” led him to believe that the Second Commandment prohibited photos.[86] He then held a press conference to discuss his case and invited the media to bring cameras. The court dismissed Bothwell’s PVWP application for failing to demonstrate sincere religious belief. Noting Bothwell’s press conference, the court held that at the root of his objections were secular concerns about privacy related to government databases, rather than a claim with a “nexus to religion.”[87] Ontario argued in Hutterian Brethren that, if it were not allowed to continue requiring its three objective criteria (i.e., membership in a religious organization, a letter of support from a religious leader, and scriptural passages substantiating a religious prohibition), it would only be able to catch wrongdoers like Bothwell on rare occasions where they, like Bothwell, “slipped up” and held a press conference.[88]

However, Ontario would also be able to distinguish insincere claimants like Bothwell from sincere claimants under my model. After all, even if Bothwell had not called a press conference, he would not have been able to satisfactorily demonstrate any of the three elements of sincere religious belief my proposed exemption requires: he could not have proved membership in a religious community that objected to photographs (prongs A and B)[89] or provided evidence of past or current practice (prong C).[90] The facts of Bothwell, therefore, suggest that my proposed modification to Ontario’s criteria is rigorous enough to enable the province to identify insincere claimants. Since Justice Iacobucci affirmed in Amselem that the claimant held the burden to demonstrate his sincere belief, an applicant who professes sincere belief but who cannot provide objective evidence supporting this belief should not succeed.[91]

The case law thus far indicates that the objective criteria in my proposed exemption—although less rigorous than those in Ontario’s current exemption—would still enable the state to identify insincere claimants.

D. Would the Supreme Court of Canada Have Accepted this Exemption?

The final question to consider in this section is whether, if the Hutterites or an intervener had proposed the exemption I drafted above, Chief Justice McLachlin would have accepted this alternative and held that Alberta had not met the minimal impairment test, despite her emphasis on the deference she owed Alberta in this context.[92]

Recall that Chief Justice McLachlin declined to quantify the precise risk exemptions posed within the minimal impairment calculation. As discussed in Section II, she rejected the Hutterites’ argument that the risk of an exemption would be low, saying “The claimants argument ... assumes some increase in risk and impairment of the government goal may occur, and hence does not assist at the stage of minimal impairment.”[93] My proposed exemption does not seem to alter this minimal impairment reasoning, since any exemption creates more of a risk than a blanket policy that does not allow for an exemption.

Nevertheless, it is worth considering the nature of the risk this exemption would create. Elsewhere in her judgment, Chief Justice McLachlin elaborated on the manner in which an exemption might undermine Alberta’s objectives. For example, she repeatedly noted that even if only sincere religious claimants were granted non-photo licences, this “would not prevent a person from assuming the identity of the licence holder and producing a fake document, which could not be checked in the absence of a photo in the data bank.”[94] This is the sole risk that even a perfectly tailored exemption, perfectly applied, could not guard against.

Let us consider this scenario in more detail. What would happen if a wrongdoer tried to appropriate the identity of a sincere religious claimant in order to obtain a non-photo licence? There are several possible eventualities to consider. First, the wrongdoer could attempt to appropriate the identity of a claimant who did not have a licence. However, this situation provides no novel risk given that there are 700,000 Albertans who do not have a licence,[95] and thus cannot pose a cause for concern. Second, the wrongdoer could attempt to appropriate the identity of a claimant who had been issued a non-photo licence. In this case, the databank would notice that an applicant was seeking a licence using the same name, birth date, and other identifying information as a religious claimant who was already in the system, and would recognize that either the licence holder or the applicant was a wrongdoer. The problem here, as Chief Justice McLachlin noted, is that in the “absence of a photo in the data bank,” it would not be clear which party was the wrongdoer. Thus, the central risk posed by my exemption is the risk that an official could not correctly determine the wrongdoer in this instance.

If we accept the exemption model I proposed above, it is hard to see how this risk would be realized. The objective evidence my exemption requires would also provide a basis on which to distinguish wrongdoers from sincere religious believers in this instance. For example, a religious official who had standing in the community could vouch for the applicant, in the same way that professionals affirm that a passport application correctly identifies an applicant. Alternatively, the applicant could provide evidence of long-standing identification with this community, or evidence of commitment to this practice. Thus, if the Supreme Court of Canada had addressed Alberta’s interpretation of Amselem, and interpreted Amselem in the manner I outlined above, it is difficult to see on what basis it could have subsequently deferred to Alberta’s minimal impairment concerns.

Conclusion: Future Subsection 2(a) Challenges and the Role of the Minimal Impairment Test

Although Alberta’s concern with how to structure a religious exemption was not recorded in the pages of the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Hutterian Brethren, it provides an important starting point to assess the implications of the Court’s new approach to subsection 2(a) claims. As discussed in Section II, above, Hutterian Brethren marks a significant methodological departure for the Court, because Chief Justice McLachlin affirmed that the proportionate effects test may often provide the critical framework for assessing freedom of religion claims. This critical passage bears repeating in full:

Freedom of religion cases may often present this “all or nothing” dilemma. Compromising religious beliefs is something adherents may understandably be unwilling to do. And governments may find it difficult to tailor laws to the myriad ways in which they may trench on different people’s religious beliefs and practices. The result may be that the justification of a limit on the right falls to be decided not at the point of minimal impairment, which proceeds on the assumption that the state goal is valid, but at the stage of proportionality of effects.[96]

What are the potential implications of this methodology for future subsection 2(a) claims? Let us begin by noting that the minimal impairment and proportionate effects tests generate distinct products. The minimal impairment test considers whether there are alternative methods of achieving the state’s objective. It thus considers whether there is another way to address each party’s needs, to protect both the integrity of the society as a whole and the functioning of minority groups within it. In contrast, the proportionate effects analysis determines, in the event that no alternative route can be found, whose interests should prevail. Grimm’s formulation of the third step of Oakes starkly stresses this aspect:

[B]alancing does not save ... the judge from deciding which right or interest shall ultimately prevail in which situation. This means that religious freedom may be on the losing side regardless of the importance of a religious requirement for the believer. There are situations in which the only alternative is adaptation to the secular norm or emigration.[97]

The proportionate effects test thus potentially reduces the many alternatives presented in the minimal impairment analysis to two stark choices: adaptation or emigration. As Grimm acknowledges, this may be appropriate in some very difficult circumstances. However, what are the implications of declaring, as Chief Justice McLachlin and Justice Abella did in Hutterian Brethren, that the proportionate effects test provides the critical framework to assess many of these claims?

Turning to the proportionate effects test before exhausting the minimal impairment inquiry may have the unfortunate consequence of discouraging legislative innovation at a time when it is sorely needed. In Hutterian Brethren the question of whether an exemption to the licence photo requirement was feasible—the classic question of a minimal impairment analysis—raised difficult questions as to the scope of the subsection 2(a) guarantee, such as whether religious beliefs can emerge in isolation. The Court’s proportionate effects analysis, in contrast, did not require these questions to be considered.[98] Thus, if the Court turns to the proportionate effects analysis prematurely, it may restrict the legislature’s ability to craft constitutional alternatives that further the state’s policy objectives.

The Court’s new methodology may likewise discourage rights claimants from considering potential alternatives. As an example, consider the alternative of fingerprinting. In the course of litigation, the Hutterites brought up this alternative in fits and starts: they suggested it in oral argument at the Alberta Court of Appeal, and then elected not to pursue it at the Supreme Court of Canada, seemingly after being informed that the act of fingerprinting also involved the taking of a photograph.[99] Yet in their application to the Court for a rehearing, the Hutterites requested that the Court consider whether fingerprinting would provide a viable alternative to Alberta’s photo requirement.[100] Although any explanation of the shift in the Hutterites’ position remains speculative, their inconsistent positions regarding this alternative brings to mind a potential difficulty in litigating freedom of religion claims. The minimal impairment analysis assumes the religious adherents are able to evaluate precisely how different alternatives impact their faith. However, since litigation often takes place in response to novel technological or social incursions into the religious sphere, this may not always be the case. The search for alternatives may require religious leaders to learn about the technology at issue as well as to reinterpret foundational guiding texts with these new developments in mind. It is possible that in the course of litigation a communal shift may occur, opening up new options that were not immediately apparent. Turning to the proportionate effects analysis prematurely may discourage religious claimants, as well as the legislature, from embarking on this difficult process.

Chief Justice McLachlin anchored her assertion of the importance of the proportionate effects test in the difficulty that legislatures have in tailoring laws to protect the diversity of beliefs found in Canada’s multicultural society. Although it is surely difficult for religious adherents to “compromise” their beliefs, and for governments to “tailor” their laws, the minimal impairment analysis nevertheless calls on all parties to think through the unique challenges of protecting freedom of religion in a liberal democracy. If the Court had responded to Alberta’s and Ontario’s concerns pertaining to the nature of a religious-based exemption after Amselem, its guidance may have enabled Alberta to develop an alternative in this instance. More critically, the Court’s remarks would have encouraged future parties to these clashes to scrutinize whether the rights of religious claimants truly conflict with the greater good.