BeliefWatch: Drinkers Vs. Drivers

Who are you for? The cabbies or the airport commission? In Minneapolis, that most open-minded of American cities, the debate has gotten vicious. This week the airport will begin imposing strict sanctions on cabdrivers who refuse to pick up passengers carrying alcohol. After two offenses, a driver can have his license—his livelihood, in other words—revoked for two years.

Of the 900 drivers who service the airport at Minneapolis-St. Paul, three quarters are Somali immigrants, and most of these are observant Muslims who believe that carrying, selling or imbibing alcohol is sinful. Several years ago some drivers began turning down passengers who visibly carried alcohol—a bottle from the duty-free shop, for example. According to the airport authority, passengers were refused nearly 5,000 times over the past four years. In those cases, a dispatcher would send the driver to the back of the line and the passenger would get the next available cab.

Early this year the whole thing blew up. After some wrangling, the airport agreed to designate certain cabs "alcohol free," similar to "nonsmoking." The public went nuts, saying the airport was accommodating the drivers too much and the passengers too little. In response to the outcry, the airport commission reversed itself: two weeks ago it voted unanimously on the sanctions.

In March, Target—also based in Minneapolis—agreed to move its Muslim cashiers who preferred not to handle pork into other jobs, and perhaps the cabdrivers were emboldened by this precedent. "We are just regular people trying to live by our faith and do our jobs," says Abdinoor Dolal, who is the cabbies' unofficial spokesman. "Something so small as this, why can't it be resolved? We don't understand." The drivers will go to court if necessary, he says. But John Witte, a religion and law expert at Emory University, says they don't have a case. Federal law requires that employees be allowed to practice their religion; it does not require that a work environment be religiously inoffensive in every particular instance. Even American Muslim activists concede that other cases are worthier. "There are many, many other civil-rights issues in the post-9/11 world that are far more important," says Arsalan Iftikhar, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Refusing a passenger with alcohol is the "moral equivalent of turning away someone eating a ham sandwich," he adds. In America, one person's sin is another person's sacrament.