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Canadian Sikh loses case seeking exemption from helmet law

March 07, 2008 11:37 IST

A Canadian court has dismissed a Sikh's plea challenging the mandatory wearing of helmet while riding a motorcycle, but admitted that the law did violate his constitutional right to religious freedom.

Baljinder Badesha, a 39-year-old father of four, who immigrated from India to Canada in 1989, was fighting a $110 ticket he received in September 2005 for not wearing a helmet over his turban while riding his motorcycle. He had claimed that the law discriminates against Sikhs because their religion obliges them to cover their hair with nothing more than a turban.

Ontario's Justice W J Blacklock ruled that the law indeed violates Badesha's constitutional right to religious freedoms, but is justifiable under Section 1 of the Canadian Charter for Rights and Freedom because the safety measure dramatically reduces public healthcare costs and saves lives.

"Given the nature of Badesha's beliefs, which foreclose him from wearing anything over his turban, and yet the unquestioned safety and related issues, this is one of those cases in which, unfortunately, no accommodation appears possible," the judge ruled on the case that took more than two years to move through the courts.

The evidence, Justice Blacklock said, showed that to ride a motorcycle helmetless involves the imposition of significant extra risks related to safety and would put 'undue hardship' on the province.

Badesha's lawyer Melvin Sokolsky said they would file an appeal against the judgment. Badesha and his supporters told local media they were not disheartened by the ruling and they would now lobby the government to change the law.

India and Britain exempt Sikhs from wearing helmets and so do the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and British Columbia, where a human-rights challenge led to the exemption.

Judge Blacklock ruled, "Helmets appear to me more likely than not to substantially reduce the risk of head injuries and death to motorcycle riders. It is certainly clear that in permitting Mr Badesha and all Sikh adherents who hold his religious views to ride motorcycles without a helmet would not achieve the same level of safety for them"

"The same level of protection against emotional trauma and economic turmoil would certainly not be available to their dependents and loved ones," the judge added.

The court was told earlier that Badesha had successfully raced a motorcycle around an Ontario speedway in order to disprove a Crown theory that turbans unravel at high speed and cause accidents.

"Observant Sikhs are put in the impossible position of choosing between ordinary, everyday activities and observing their faith," said lawyer Scott Hutchison, who represented the Ontario Human Rights Commission. "That is religious discrimination," he added.

Badesha said that Sikhs should be left alone to make their own decisions about motorcycle gear. "If his religion allowed, he would wear a helmet; simple as that. He has nothing against wearing helmets," Badesha's lawyer said.

Judge Blacklock's decision acknowledged that Manitoba and BC have both created exemptions that allow Sikhs to ride motorcycles without helmets. But he remarked that the court decisions which led to those exemptions might not still hold true if they were re-tried under recent Supreme Court jurisprudence.

The judge said the prospect of severe brain injury if the exempt were allowed is not speculative. "We are talking about the certainty of brain injury, some of them severe," he said.

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