TC Airport: Muslim Taxis Must Take Booze and Dogs

We've been following this story because it's got all the elements of high religious drama. Airports, alcohol, dog saliva, fatwas, Somalis, demands for a prayer room - watch for this on the new Law and Order: G.O.D.

Tighter airport cab rules proposed: Officials want tougher penalties for refusal to transport passengers carrying alcohol.

By John Reinan, Star Tribune

Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport officials want to crack down on Muslim taxi drivers who refuse to carry alcohol or service dogs in their cabs.

At a meeting Wednesday of the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), airport staff members asked the commission to give the go-ahead for public hearings on a tougher policy that would suspend the licenses of drivers who refuse service for any reason other than safety concerns.

Drivers who refuse to accept passengers transporting alcohol or service dogs would have their airport licenses suspended 30 days for the first offense and revoked two years for the second offense, according to a proposed taxi ordinance revision.

"Our expectation is that if you're going to be driving a taxi at the airport, you need to provide service to anybody who wants it," commission spokesman Patrick Hogan said.

The penalties would also apply to drivers who refuse a fare because it is too short a trip.

The full commission is expected to vote on the proposal for public hearings at its next meeting, scheduled for Jan. 16.

Airports Commissioner Bert McKasy called the dispute -- in which some drivers complained that carrying alcohol or dogs violated religious precepts -- "unfortunate," but said that serving the public has to be the primary goal.

"I think it's pretty much the consensus of the commissioners and the staff that we have to provide good service to the public, and that's pretty much the bottom line," McKasy said.

About 100 people are refused cab service each month at the airport. Roughly three-quarters of the 900 taxi drivers at the airport are Somali, many of them Muslim. In recent months, the problem of service refusals for religious reasons has grown, airport officials have said, calling it "a significant customer-service issue."

Last year, the airport proposed a system of color-coded lights on taxis, indicating which drivers would accept passengers carrying alcohol. That proposal was dropped.

Hogan said the goal is to have a new policy in place by May 11, when all airport taxi licenses come up for annual renewal.

"We want the drivers to know about the policy in advance, so that if they don't think they can work under these conditions, they have the option of not renewing their license," Hogan said.

Last year, the airports commission received a fatwa, or religious edict, from the Minnesota chapter of the Muslim American Society. The fatwa said that "Islamic jurisprudence" prohibits taxi drivers from carrying passengers with alcohol, "because it involves cooperating in sin according to Islam."

Eva Buzek, a flight attendant and Minneapolis resident, called the new proposal "great news." Buzek recently was refused service by five taxi drivers when she returned from a trip to France carrying wine.

"In my book, when you choose to come to a different country, you make some choices," said Buzek, a native of Poland. "I never expected everything to be the same way as in my homeland, and I adjusted. I never dreamed of imposing my beliefs on somebody else."

'A violation of faith'

But Hassan Mohamud, imam at Al-Taqwa Mosque of St. Paul, and director of the Islamic Law Institute at the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, one of the largest Islamic organizations in the state, said that asking Muslims to transport alcohol "is a violation of their faith" as well as of the spirit of the First Amendment.

Mohamud, an attorney who teaches Islamic law at William Mitchell Law School in St. Paul, said, "Muslims do not consume, carry, sell or buy alcohol." Islam also considers the saliva of dogs to be unclean, he said.

Mohamud said he would ask airport officials to reconsider, adding that he hoped that a compromise could be worked out that would serve as a bridge between the American legal system and the cultural and religious values of the immigrants.

Currently, he said, more than half of the state's taxi drivers are Muslim and about 150,000 people follow Islam in Minnesota, most of them in the metro area.

"So the commission should respect the will of the majority of the taxi drivers, with complete accommodation to the consumers," Mohamud said.

Many Somali taxi drivers don't have any problem transporting passengers with alcohol and are worried about a backlash, countered Omar Jamal, executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center. Jamal said he supports the tougher penalties.

"We tell the taxi drivers, if you don't want to do this, change your job," he said. "You are living in a country where alcohol is not viewed the way it is in your country."

But Jamal and Mahmoud both disagreed with the airports commission on another issue of religion and airport operation. Jamal said his group will continue to push for a separate prayer room at the airport reserved solely for Muslims.

That won't happen, according to Hogan.

"Our position is that there will be no room for one faith," he said. "We have a quiet seating area that can be used by anybody for quiet contemplation or prayer. If that is inadequate, we could possibly look at finding a larger space.

"In no case would we be looking at [exclusive] space for one faith or another."

Staff writer Joy Powell contributed to this report. •

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