ICBC rules for religious headgear remain shrouded in mystery It’s not only colanders — other unusual coverings include tiara, light pink tablecloth
BY MATTHEW ROBINSON
VANCOUVER SUN FEBRUARY 28, 2015 http://www.vancouversun.com/life/ICB...851/story.html Pastafarians show off their religious headgear in Surrey, B.C. on February 8, 2015. Left to right, in the front row is Sarah Rodriguez and Pam Materi. In the back row, Jack Grant (left), Obi Canuel, Kerry Richardson and Clive Bellan.
Surrey resident Obi Canuel made international headlines last year when the Insurance Corp. of B.C. refused to let him wear a spaghetti strainer on his head in his driver’s license photograph.
Canuel’s request was unusual, but as he reasoned with ICBC, he is an ordained minister in the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and wears his colander in religious observance.
As it turns out, Pastafarian colanders are not the only atypical adornments ICBC customers have claimed to wear for religious purposes, according to the insurer’s internal documents.
A plastic tiara, a Saskatchewan Roughriders ball cap, bandanas and a light pink tablecloth held up by safety pins are among the colourful head coverings the insurer has seen in recent years.
Requests for accommodation of religious headgear are so commonplace that ICBC has a “Special Investigation Unit” that researches religious rituals before its manager, Ben Shotton, decrees who can and cannot cover their heads in identity photos.
ICBC refused to allow an interview with Shotton and has shrouded its religious policies in secrecy, but hundreds of documents obtained by The Vancouver Sun in a freedom of information request has offered a rare glimpse behind the veil.
It has long been ICBC policy to permit its customers to wear religious headgear that is worn “in conjunction with religious practice” and that does not interfere with its facial recognition technology. Sikh turbans, for example, are permitted in identity photos because they don’t obscure the face. Muslim burkas or niqabs, however, are not, because they cover the face.
The insurer has never disclosed a list of what it will accept, but its internal documents help rule out some options.
Toques — like the one a Burnaby woman wore to a licensing office — are not allowed, nor are bandanas like that of a man in Dawson Creek who said he was a Zionist who would “be struck by lightning and possibly die” if his headgear was removed.
Tablecloths like the one a man in Revelstoke wore to his local driver licensing office are definitely not allowed. The clerk on duty that day made him uncover his head before also taking issue with his heavy, dark makeup. But after a “Level 2 investigation” — whatever that means — Shotton at the Special Investigation Unit let the makeup slide and gave the man his licence.
Saskatchewan Roughriders caps are not considered religious headgear, as a Chase man found out. He was denied his photo, as was a Sparwood man who claimed to have worn his ball cap in driver’s licence photos for the previous four decades.
But not all unusual headgear is rejected by ICBC, as internal emails show. An Orthodox Jewish woman was approved after she told the insurer she “can wear a baseball cap if she wants to in her picture and that she is going to the media.”
The internal documents show ICBC’s investigation process starts at driver licensing offices, where anyone requesting accommodation of their headgear is asked three questions:
• What is your religion or religious belief?
• What is the religious significance of your headgear?
• What religious obstacle or consequence will flow from a requirement that you be photographed without your religious headgear?
The recorded answers — along with comments about how serious the client seemed, other statements they made then or at other times, and information on whether ICBC accommodated them in the past — are then passed up a chain of employees to the Special Investigation Unit.
Sometimes a tricky request comes along and the unit has to do research before it makes a decision. That happened in the case of a hat-wearing Buddhist man who one ICBC employee thought “was just taking a stand.”
“He claims he is Buddhist, but I can’t find a lot on the Internet regarding Buddhists and religious headgear — there are some variations of different ceremonial hats worn, but none resemble the one worn by the client.”
The man had explained to ICBC that he practises “Yo Rey Buddhism” and his purity is maintained by wearing a head covering. Though ICBC couldn’t find any information on the Internet to back his claims, it accommodated him anyway.
A man in Queen Charlotte City evidently found out it is easier to wear unusual headgear in a Canadian passport photo than it in a B.C. driver’s licence photo, the documents show.
The man had told ICBC he did not follow any formal religion and worshipped his god in private. But because he said his god is not punitive and there were no consequences to taking off the blue headband he has worn for more than 25 years, ICBC denied him accommodation.
The man disputed the decision in a letter he sent to ICBC that stated federal employees had previously approved his headband for a passport photo.
“You are discriminating against me because of my religion, my relationship with my god, despite a guarantee in our constitution,” he wrote.
A woman who tried to wear a tiara in her photo had a similar reaction after she was initially rejected by ICBC.
She stated in a pithy letter to the insurer that she had worn her “religiously designated hair ornament” for the past five years. The woman claimed to be a Beguine — an adherent of a small religious movement with roots that date back to the 12th century.
Her letter included a picture of her commercially available tiara, accompanied by a note that read: “My Mother was buried in the Coldstream Cemetery with her Tiara. I will be buried there with this Tiara.”
In the end, ICBC capitulated and mailed the woman her licence, according to the latest uncensored information in the documents.
It was not until a few years later that Canuel walked into a driver licensing office wearing a colander in the typical Pastafarian fashion — placed upside down atop the head with the brim of the strainer extending partway down the brow.
The colander, Pastafarians explained to ICBC, are worn to “spread the glory” of their God, and being photographed without it “will result in ... being sent to a less enjoyable level of heaven,” according to the documents.
But Shotton dismissed the Pastafarians’ requests, telling them: “ICBC has been provided with information that it is not specifically suggested or required that recognized head covering be worn at all times.”
Wearing headgear at all times was not a requirement ICBC made of Rastafarians or various other religious adherents it had previously approved, but despite that, Canuel and others were ordered to bare their heads before returning to ICBC for new photographs.
Before arriving at its policy to deny Pastafarians, ICBC sent a survey to its licensing counterparts in the U.S. and Canada asking if and how they “recognize the parody religion Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.”
Respondents in seven U.S. states told ICBC they would permit Pastafarians to wear their headgear, and 14 stated to the effect they take religious claims at face value.
“If a customer states they are wearing a head covering for religious reasons we take their word for it,” wrote a survey respondent from Virginia. Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Montana, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Florida and New York had similar policies.
There is good reason for organizations like ICBC to take a hands-off approach to religion — intersections of faith and public life are sensitive, guided by human rights legislation, and often result in costly court battles.
Earlier this month, a Federal Court ruling found to be unconstitutional a law that required people to uncover their faces before taking a Canadian citizenship oath. The ruling sparked nationwide debate and Ottawa has vowed to appeal the ruling.
ICBC is subject to the B.C. Human Rights Code, making its decisions on religious accommodation — even for new or fringe groups like Pastafarians — delicate.
One concerned letter writer eloquently expressed why the decisions taken by the Special Investigation Unit matter.
“I am a member of a religious minority,” wrote the person, whose name was redacted from ICBC’s documents. “I see Pastafarianism and other new religions as bellwethers for religious tolerance and when a Pastafarian’s beliefs are challenged as silly and ruled unworthy of equal protection under the law, I fear that my own deeply held beliefs will be the next to be called silly and unworthy of protection.”
Adam Grossman, a spokesman for ICBC, said the insurer tries to balance respect for religious beliefs with “the need to establish and safeguard the identity of our customers” and to preserve the integrity of B.C.’s driver licensing system.
There may be another reason why ICBC rejects unusual headgear.
“When this photograph first came in, I was asked about it and said no way,” Shotton said in reference to the Beguine woman’s tiara, adding that “we put a high benchmark on this type of claim.”
He later wrote: “I don’t want the word to get out about ‘just say it is religious headgear and they will let you have it.’ ”