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Muslim cabbies tell airport they won't bend in alcohol dispute

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. --For Abdi Mohamed, it's not a question of whether he'll carry passengers with alcohol in his cab. The question is whether he'll get punished for refusing to do so.

"I am Muslim. I'm not going to carry alcohol," Mohamed, a driver for Bloomington Cab, told a Metropolitan Airports Commission panel that gathered public opinion Tuesday regarding proposed penalties for cabbies who refuse service to passengers carrying alcohol.

Dozens of cab drivers showed up for the hearing at a hotel near the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Commissioners are charged with setting a new policy by May, when airport licenses for cab drivers are set to expire. Under the proposal, drivers who refuse service for any reason would have their license suspended for 30 days. A second refusal would mean a two-year revocation of the license.

According to airport officials, about 80 percent of their cabdrivers are Somali, who are commonly Muslim. Islam religious law strictly forbids the carrying of alcohol.

Last year, airport officials said alcohol-bearing passengers were being refused service an average of 77 times a month, though that dropped drastically after new travel safety rules prohibited liquids in carry-on luggage.

In September, the commission proposed a compromise that would have let Muslim cabbies purchase and mount a different-colored light on their cab if they didn't want to pick up passengers carrying alcohol.

But that proposal triggered a huge backlash, from both passengers and other taxi drivers who feared it would make travelers avoid taxis altogether. Soon the airport commission went the other direction, proposing the stiff penalties for cabbies who refuse service to alcohol-toting passengers.

Douglas Bass, of St. Paul, came to the hearing to argue for what he believes is an important principle.

"I don't have a problem with people practicing their religion," Bass said, "I don't even have a problem with people who want everyone to believe what they believe. But I do have a problem when a majority is being forced to observe other religions and customs."

Much of the hearing was dedicated to concerns over whether Muslim cabbies would also refuse service to blind passengers with trained guide dogs, because of Muslim prohibitions against interacting with dogs.

Several blind people voiced their concerns, but cabbies at the hearing said such worries aren't warranted. Refusing service to blind passengers is against federal law.

"I am a Muslim and I have taken many guide dogs," Abdi Mohamed said.

But the cabbies and their supporters left no doubt that they aren't flexible on the alcohol issue.

Hassan Mohamud, a Muslim imam and adjunct law professor at William Mitchell College of Law, said the Muslim cab drivers are only trying to support their families, both here and in their strife-torn home country, and are being placed in an impossible situation.

"If we pass this (policy) it means cutting off the lifelines of thousands of people," Mohamud said.

Airport director Steve Wareham said the policy should be viewed as a public safety issue. "Refusals of service can lead to customers wandering through lanes of traffic looking for another taxi," he said.

Abdifatah Abdi, who said he is counseling cabdrivers on legal issues related to the controversy, warned commissioners that instituting the penalty would set off a long legal battle.

"This is a religious freedom issue, and it will not end here," Abdi said. "It will go to the courts, even the Supreme Court. The drivers will not relinquish their rights to be protected under American law."

Airport spokesman Pat Hogan said the full commission was expected to vote on the proposal at its April meeting.

Maine also has drawn a Somali population. In Lewiston, where more than 2,000 Somalis have settled, a man was charged last year with violating the state's anti-discrimination law after rolling a pig's head into a mosque during the Muslims' evening prayers. Muslims are forbidden from eating pig and pork products.

In 2002, then-Mayor Larry Raymond created a furor by asking Somali community leaders to stop encouraging other Somalis to follow them to Lewiston.

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Patrick Condon can be reached at pcondon(at)ap.org

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