It’s an intriguing dilemma in a multicultural society: what happens when the rights of an individual clash with the laws of society? The latest dilemma revolves around a Sikh man named Baljinder Badesha. He was ticketed in 2005 for not wearing a motorcycle helmet as he cruised the streets near his Brampton home.
But he wasn’t being lazy, defiant or forgetful. Instead, Badesha claimed his faith mandates that he wear only a turban and that nothing should touch it, including a motorcycle helmet. He was fined $110, a punishment he’s now fighting in court with the backing of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
The Commission agrees that the father of four is being discriminated against.
“The reason he can’t wear a helmet is that he wears his turban, as you can see,” said attorney Mel Sokolsky. “This is a very profound and sincere religious belief of Mr. Badesha as a devout Sikh.”
“My religion says we cannot put anything over the turban,” Badesha stresses.
But at a Friday hearing into the controversial case, the Crown insisted the fine remain in place.
The Ontario Safety League, (O.S.L.) agrees, noting that a brain injury as a result of not wearing a helmet could cost the public health care system anywhere from $300,000 to millions.
“Wear a helmet or don’t ride a motorcycle. That’s the law in Ontario. And that’s the law that should stand as a result of this,” argues Brian Patterson of the O.S.L.
“The military requires you to wear a military helmet at all times,” he continues. “And in the labour side, you’ve got to wear appropriate headgear when operating forklifts or heavy equipment or on construction sites. That’s been challenged, and the helmet side won.”
Exceptions to the rule have been made in B.C. and Manitoba. And the commission claims losing the case wouldn’t be a disaster for prosecutors, because future exceptions would still have to be decided on a case-by-case basis.
The dispute has raised new concerns about the need for safety vs. the freedom of religion. Many believe the latter should come first and that it’s in the public interest that the law mandate people protect themselves while indulging in activities that could leave them facing severe injury.
But others contend that the man in question is an adult and he should be able to make his own decision in the name of his faith. Human Rights Commissioner Barbara Hall agrees.
“Rights like freedom of religion are not absolute, but there is a requirement if people request accommodation to explore whether or not it makes sense,” she explains. “And it means going through … scientific tests … [to determine] what happens to a turban at high speed, to determine where is the risk, and is it an acceptable level of risk? … There are a number of situations where people in Ontario currently have exemptions from the Highway Traffic Act.”
But callers to Citytv’s CityOnline disagree, calling it a foolish precedent. “I think this is a totally ridiculous thing,” criticizes a woman named Andrea. “It’s safety first. It’s nothing to do with religious aspects. If you have to wear a helmet, this is Canada. It’s in Ontario. It’s in the Highway Act. What happens if he gets hit by a car? Is his turban going to protect his head more than a helmet would?”