- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport will begin suspending licenses of Muslim taxi drivers who refuse for religious reasons to provide service to passengers transporting alcohol.

The Metropolitan Airports Commission voted unanimously Monday to suspend a driver’s airport taxi license for 30 days for the first offense and revoke it for two years after a second offense. The policy goes into effect May 11.

The action “will strengthen compliance with our taxi cab ordinance and ensure people who seek taxi service receive it,” commission Executive Director Jeff Hamiel said.

“Some Muslims believe that it is inappropriate not only to drink alcohol, but to carry or transport alcohol,” said Jeff Hassan, a lawyer representing the Muslim cabdrivers. “Some would interpret that to mean carry or transport for hire or for profit, so there are a few different interpretations on prohibitions.”

Previously, cabdrivers who refused to transport customers were sent to the back of the line, a punishment that has been handed out in nearly 5,000 instances since 2002, commission spokesman Patrick Hogan said.

“Sometimes they asked if [the passengers] are carrying alcohol, or they will see it,” Mr. Hogan said. “One person saw a stuffed animal and thought it was a decanter and denied the person service because they thought it contained alcohol.”

Another 300 incidents have been recorded in which individuals were refused transport to destinations near the airport.

Mr. Hassan said his clients are considering whether to file a lawsuit against the commission to overturn its decision.

“This is certainly possible. As this point, we do not know,” he said.

Dozens of cabdrivers were among about 100 people who attended Monday’s meeting, where Mr. Hassan argued that the drivers were protected under the state’s constitution.

“The interpretation of the Minnesota Supreme Court is that the government has to make reasonable accommodations to allow someone to observe their religious beliefs,” he said.

Mr. Hogan said the commission looked to compromises struck by other airports, but found that it was the first to encounter religious restrictions that affected Muslim drivers.

“We have not had that issue, in terms of alcohol,” said Tara Hamilton, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which oversees operations at Washington Dulles International Airport and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

“Both systems require they provide a service to passengers. We’ve not had any cabdrivers refuse that service,” she said. “We have pretty transparent requirements for services, which we hand out in fliers to inform passengers with a phone number if someone is not given the appropriate service.”

The Minneapolis commission has been trying to find a solution for the past year, when incidents began occurring at an estimated rate of 77 a month. The number of incidents declined after the Transportation Security Administration last fall banned liquids in carry-on bags, but 18 incidents were reported last month, Mr. Hogan said.

In conjunction with the new rules, the commission is offering a job fair — including employers from 10 companies located at the airport — to offer new jobs to some of the 900 licensed drivers.

“If they don’t believe they can drive because of the penalty, or think it’s time to look for a different line of work, they can still find something at the airport,” Mr. Hogan said.

Some drivers last year refused to carry passengers with seeing-eye dogs, which Muslims consider unclean. Mr. Hogan said that was limited to only three incidents.

The airport also is being sued by a group of imams who were kicked off a US Airways flight from Minneapolis to Phoenix in November after passengers and the flight crew reported suspicious behavior. The airline and passengers, also known as “John Does,” are also targets of the lawsuit.

Although the lawsuit was filed March 12, Mr. Hogan confirmed the imams’ lawyer has yet to officially serve the airport commission with the legal papers.

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