Cabbies provide about 62,000 taxi rides each month at Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport. The vast majority of the cabbies are Somali-born Muslims. Since last July almost three quarters of the cab rides refused were because the passenger was carrying alcohol.
Commissioner Mike Landy says the MAC is sensitive to the religious conflict Muslim cabbies face.
"I don't think there's one commissioner up here that doesn't understand that for the Muslim faith that alcohol, the consumption of alcohol and or transportation or sale or benefiting from alcohol, in any way is a religious conflict, I certainly understand that," he said.
But the MAC also voted unanimously to stiffen penalties for refusing to provide service for any reason other than safety concerns.
The current practice has allowed any driver who refuses a passenger to go to the end of the taxi line. It can take two to four hours to make it back to the front.
Under the new policy, a first refusal means a 30-day license suspension. The second results in license revocation and the cabbie can't reapply for two years. The policy also includes an appeals process. The new penalties take effect May 11.
Landy says he's had nine meetings with cab drivers over the past year trying to find a compromise that would allow cab drivers to follow their religious beliefs and keep their jobs. But he says it's time to act.
"The airport has been plagued with this issue. Ask the drivers themsleves, and I think, frankly, the longer we let this condition go on, I think that it actually has festered among all of us," he said.
The MAC took testimony in February and received more than 600 letters and e-mails on both sides of the issue. The issue has brought international attention to the airport.
Abdinoor Ahmed Dolal, an airport taxi driver, was one of a few people who testified before the commission voted on the tougher penalties. He told the commission the stiffer penalties will hurt him economically and infringe on his religious freedom.
"As a taxicab driver and my fellow cab drivers, we are required to obey all the ordinances approved by the commission because this is a country based on laws. Likewise the commission is required to obey all the laws of this country and state, especially if it is a fundamental right protected by both the U.S. And Minnesota Constitution. Religious freedom is not an issue that can be trampled upon by a Metropolitan Airport Commission ordinance," Dolal said.
The commission's lawyer, Thomas Anderson, would not discuss the legal aspects of the ordinance at the public meeting, citing attorney-client privilege. But he did say the ordinance is "not free from doubt," because there is no precedent.
All airport taxi drivers are independent contractors. It's unclear how many taxicab drivers would leave the job now that the ordinance has been approved.
MAC officials say they will hold a job fair on April 25, open only to taxicab drivers. Officials say there are plenty of other jobs at the airport.
"I think it's insulting," said Brooklyn Park lawyer Jeffrey Hassan, who says he was asked by the taxi drivers to represent them at the commission meeting. He says the job fair will do little to help cabbies who have to give up their taxis.
"They're all essentially menial entry-level types of jobs. Driving a taxi gives the drivers freedoms they don't otherwise have. As we all know, a lot of the families don't speak English and so they can leave at a moment's notice if it's necessary to take a wife or a child to a medical appointment or school appointment and be able to act as a translator. They have that flexibility," he said.
Hassan says he is not ruling out a lawsuit on behalf of the Muslim cabdrivers at the airport. A lawsuit is only one question hanging over the dispute. It also is unclear how many cab drivers will decide to quit rather than risk compromising their religious beliefs.