Cabbies, customers claim discrimination in airport dispute

A public hearing convened Tuesday by the Metropolitan Airports Commission made it clear that a proposed ordinance to revoke licenses of some airport cabbies is a delicate matter with many sides saying they're not being treated fairly.

For example, some people carrying wine back from California say cabbies have discriminated against them. Blind people with service dogs say some taxi drivers won't take them either. It's discrimination, they say.

And a third claim of discrimination is being made by Muslim cab drivers themselves - the people the first two groups say are discriminating against them.

Confused? Here's some background.

Seventy percent of the some 900 cab drivers serving the airport are from Somalia. Most Somalis are Muslim. Some drivers, not all, say their faith forbids them from carrying passengers traveling with alcohol. And some are reportedly refusing to carry people traveling with pets or service dogs.

MAC officials say they've received over 5,000 complaints since 2002 on the issue. Most of the complaints are from passengers being refused service because they were carrying alcohol.

The MAC is proposing to increase the penalties for cabbies who refuse fares for reasons other than safety. On the first offense, the MAC would suspend a cabbies airport license for 30 days. If there's a second offense, the MAC would revoke the license and the driver would not be able to reapply for two years.

Currently, if cabbies refuse service for any reason other than safety, they are sent to the back of the taxi line. It can take up to three hours to make it to the start of the line again. Cabbies say though they lose out on money and time, they can live with the system and don't see a need to change it.

About 200 people turned out for Tuesday's hearing. As the it wore on through the afternoon, more than 70 people had testified.

Hassan Mohamud, of the Somali Institute for Peace and Justice, told the panel the proposed penalties are too harsh for the Somali immigrants.

He confirmed that for Muslims, there is a universal religious prohibition against alcohol. But he said there is nothing in Islamic faith about dogs.

He appealed to the MAC to consider the American legal principal of reasonable religious accommodation, and to find another solution.

"I think it's appropriate to respect what (the cabbies) are asking for," Mohamud said. "If it's not undue hardship to the company. And I don't think it is."

But the MAC says the current system is a customer service and safety issue.

Airport Director Steve Wareham reported to the panel and those attending the hearing, that the MAC's policy has always been that all customers are served equally. He said the current proposal to increase penalties came only after other compromises fell through.

"At this point we believe there's no other way to reinforce the existing rule than a strict penalty," Wareham said. "This strict penalty will send a strong message. And the message is: if you want to drive a taxicab at Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport, you will serve all our customers that are orderly, intend to pay their fare, with legal commodities in their possession."

Wareham said that passengers have also complained about not being able to use taxi vouchers, and being refused short fares to the Mall of America.

One group strongly in support of the MAC's proposal is the blind and seeing-eye community.

Rebecca Cragnes, who is blind and is president of Minnesota Guide Dog Users, testified "in full support" of the proposed penalties. She says she and many other blind people using service dogs are regularly refused cab service.

"I'm no constitutional scholar," said Cragnes. "However, I know that in our secular society, when religious rights and civil rights come into conflict, the courts have ruled that civil rights trump religious rights."

The MAC commission is expected to vote on the proposed changes in April.

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