DMV Puts No-Photo Driver’s Licenses to the Test

Times Staff Writer

For 20 years, Benjamin Stackler remained anonymous in a way that few Californians could. By court order, he was not required to have a photo on his driver’s license.

But now, the Berkeley resident’s refusal to have his picture taken -- on the grounds that it is barred by his religion -- has earned him notoriety within the Department of Motor Vehicles, which is heading to court to ensure that the state has every last one of its 22.6 million motorists on file.

“We’re just not going to issue any more driver’s licenses without photos,” said DMV Director Steven Gourley. “A driver’s license is a privilege, and if you want it, you have to play by the rules.”


Stackler’s attorney, Bill Kopper, counters that the DMV is interfering with his client’s freedom to practice his faith. “People’s religious rights are being impinged upon in the name of national security. Where is it going to stop?”

California is the latest battleground between motorists and the government over the issue of photographic identification.

Until recently, at least 15 states -- including Washington, Indiana and Nebraska -- granted driver’s licenses to motorists who refused to be photographed on religious grounds, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which represented a Muslim woman who refused to sit before a camera without her full-face veil. But in June, a Florida judge ruled that the woman, Sultaana Freeman, could not obtain a driver’s license unless she removed her veil for the photo.

Stackler’s case pits the state of California against the Second Commandment, which some Christian sects have interpreted as prohibiting any “graven image,” such as a photo.

“It presents an interesting issue ... involving a significant constitutionally protected right,” said professor Jesse Choper, an expert on religious freedom at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law. “A case like this has the potential of going all the way to the California Supreme Court.”

Since 1958, California law has mandated that a valid license bear a full-face picture of the driver, according to the DMV. But in the 1960s, after followers of the Molokan faith protested that sitting for a photo interfered with their observance of the Second Commandment, the DMV created an exemption for followers of the Christian sect. It was granted if an applicant could present certification signed by an elder in the Molokan church, according to the agency’s policy at the time.

Stackler first tried to avoid DMV cameras in the late 1970s by arguing that the picture would violate his privacy rights. A judge threw out that petition.

But Stackler returned to court a few years later, saying he was an elder in his own Molokan sect.

In 1984, a Sacramento Superior Court judge found his religious beliefs to be sincere and ordered the agency to grant him a license without a photo.

But this year, DMV officials balked.

“It’s a completely unsafe practice to issue driver’s licenses ... without a photograph,” said Gourley, the agency director, contending that photos deter fraud, allow law enforcement officers to act more quickly and reduce the risk of terrorist attacks. “It’s about time the DMV took a stand on this.”

In June, the DMV rescinded its “Molokan exemption” in an administrative action that affected fewer than 20 motorists, who now must be photographed if they wish to renew their licenses.

To overturn Stackler’s court order, which was unaffected by the administrative action, the DMV’s attorneys filed a lawsuit on Oct. 30 in Sacramento Superior Court, arguing that religious beliefs do not excuse people from complying with the law.

“The request to obtain a license without a picture now takes place against the backdrop of a different world, where threats from perils such as identity theft and terrorism make the practice especially precarious,” the lawsuit said.

In an interview, Stackler said he would fight vigorously to keep his license photo-free. He demurred when asked his age, profession or association with the Molokan faith.

He also declined to categorize his religious beliefs, other than calling himself “a biblically oriented person” who lives by Psalms and Proverbs.

Molokan, a Christian sect with roots in Russia, has 30,000 to 50,000 followers in California, Oregon and Arizona, according to Ethel Dunn, executive secretary of Berkeley-based Highgate Road Social Science Research Station, which has published books on the religion.

According to Dunn and a Los Angeles member of the Molokan community, only a small minority within the faith refuses to sit for photos. But a common trait among many is an intense desire for privacy.

“We are a pretty low-profile group of people. We don’t want any extra attention brought to us,” said the Molokan man, whose father is a church elder and who would speak only on the condition that his name not be published.

“We want to give glory to God, not to us.”

The member, who does not know Stackler, said he and many Molokans have photos on their driver’s licenses. But the DMV’s actions make life difficult for “true believers,” he added. “They strongly believe a picture is a graven image and it would conflict with their beliefs.”

Others question just how much a driver’s license photo would deter crime.

“The people who did the hijacking on 9/11 -- all of them had licenses with photos, and that didn’t stop them,” said Kopper, the attorney.

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