Religion and alcohol sparked a sharp debate Tuesday as the Metropolitan Airports Commission considered a crackdown on Muslim taxi drivers who deny service to passengers carrying liquor.

During a hearing that lasted most of the afternoon and into the evening, commissioners heard testimony on a proposed ordinance that would impose harsher penalties on cabdrivers at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport who refuse fares for religious or other reasons.

Commission staffers said tougher penalties are needed to ensure reliable cab service at the airport.

"Our stance is first come, first served," said airport director Steve Wareham. "The message is if you want to drive a taxicab at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, you will serve all customers."

Many cabbies disagreed, saying that the proposal denies them the right to freely practice their religion.

"This is discrimination," proclaimed Ahmed Shine, a taxi driver for seven years.

Abdifatah Abdi, who said he was speaking for an association of cabdrivers, said the commissioners "will be judged on your decision."You are deciding the livelihood of 600 drivers and their families," Abdi said. "Say no to discrimination. Say yes to justice for the weak."

About 100 people are denied cab service each month at the airport, many by drivers who refuse to transport alcohol in their cabs. Roughly three-quarters of the 900 taxi drivers at the airport are Somali, many of them Muslims.

Last year, the MAC 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."

At the back of the Bloomington hotel ballroom that hosted the hearing, four large, hand-painted signs stood on easels. "Separation of Mosque & Airport," read one.

They were the work of Douglas Bass, a St. Paul software professional who said he considers the taxi debate "a small skirmish in a much larger conflict."What this is doing is forcing the larger community to adopt the norms and culture of a much smaller community," he said. "We're not trying to force them to practice any religion. I just ask the same freedom of them."

A group of blind Minnesotans was on hand, too, testifying about taxi drivers who refused to transport their guide dogs because Muslims consider the saliva of dogs unclean. A well-known St. Paul imam, Hassan Mohamud, called that a misinterpretation of Islam and said it shouldn't be a problem. Several drivers spoke strongly against anyone who would refuse to let a guide dog in his cab.

John Reinan • 612-673-7402 •