A court fight is likely as MAC cracks down on Muslims who decline alcohol-carrying riders.
Airport commissioners insist it’s simply a customer-service issue. But many Muslim taxi drivers say it’s an unfair new penalty that violates their religious prohibitions against handling alcohol.
Both sides agree that the dispute, part of a cultural conflict in the Twin Cities that has already drawn national attention, is probably heading for a court challenge, which in turn could become a national test case.
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On an 11-0 vote Monday, Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) members voted to crack down on drivers refusing service, making Minnesota the first place in the country to decide how to treat Muslim cabbies who decline to transport alcohol- toting riders on religious grounds.
Starting May 11, any airport taxi drivers who refuse riders will face 30-day suspensions. Drivers will have their licenses revoked two years for a second offense.
“We’re just sending a message that if you want to drive here at this airport, you have to take all our customers,” said Steve Wareham, director of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
Hassan A. Mohamud, an imam at the Islamic Da’wah Center in St. Paul, called the stricter sanctions frustrating and disappointing.
“We see this as a harsh penalty against fellow Americans only because they are practicing their faith,” the Muslim scholar said. “This does not reflect the American values of tolerance and accommodation.”
Roughly three-quarters of the 900 licensed cabbies at the airport are Somali and most are Muslim.
There were 27 alcohol-related refusals of service out of an estimated 120,000 rides from mid-November to mid-January, one of the airport’s busiest seasons, according to recent MAC figures. It has been less of a problem since Aug. 11, when carrying liquids on planes was banned, airport officials said. Most of the recent issues came from buying alcohol at duty-free shops.
Taxi driver Abdinoor Ahmed Dolal said that many of his fellow Muslim cabbies plan to go ahead and pay for renewed licenses and adhere to all the commission’s rules — until a rider clearly carrying a bottle of alcohol needs a ride.
“That is against our faith and we will wait until that moment and continue working until we are pulled out of line,” said Dolal, a Kenyan emigre. “This is a country of laws, not a country of men. They passed an ordinance that we feel is unfair and if we have to go to the state Supreme Court, we will.”
Attorney Jeff Hassan, representing the Muslim drivers, pointed to a 1990 Minnesota Supreme Court decision allowing Amish buggies to use state roads without displaying bright orange triangles required under state law. The Amish maintained the signs were against their religion.
Hassan cited the case in arguing that the Minnesota Constitution is “distinctively stronger” than the federal Constitution in protecting religious freedom. The state Constitution dates to settlers coming from different sects who had faced intolerance in their native lands, he said.
“There is a clear analogy to this new group to this country that has particular beliefs and our courts require reasonable accommodation,” said Hassan, who added later that a court challenge is likely.
MAC attorney Tom Anderson told commissioners that the Amish case is different because taxi drivers are common carriers of other people. But he acknowledged that “ultimately this might be the court’s decision.”
Commission Chairman Jack Lanners talked about an e-mail he received from a parent who was riding home from the airport with two children.
The parent casually mentioned he had wine in his luggage “and he was deposited on the street somewhere in the dark of night,” Lanners said. “That’s a safety issue.”
But Dolal, the drivers’ unofficial spokesman, said they are only concerned about exposed alcohol and wouldn’t ask passengers what was in their luggage.
Commissioner Mike Landy said he had met with Muslim scholars and understands the Qur’an rules against benefitting from alcohol and how that is considered sinful.
“The airport is plagued with this issue and the longer we let the condition go on, it has actually festered,” he said.
Airport spokesman Patrick Hogan said that the issue apparently has not bubbled up elsewhere. Some say that’s because of Minneapolis’ high concentration of refugees from Somalia, many of whom interpret the Qur’an more conservatively.