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Where faith and work collide

Somalis create a stir in Minneapolis by declaring certain jobs offensive to Islam.

March 27, 2007|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

MINNEAPOLIS — "GET OVER IT," urged the posting on an online bulletin board, "you are in America act like an American!!"

The anger was directed at Somalian immigrants who have roiled this city by declaring certain jobs offensive to their Muslim faith. Many Somalian cabdrivers -- who dominate the airport taxi business -- refuse to transport passengers carrying alcohol. Some Somalian cashiers will not handle pork products; instead, they've begun asking customers to scan their own bacon.

To the immigrants, it's a question of religious freedom -- and protecting themselves from sin.

"This is not something we are choosing to do. It's part of our religion," said cabdriver King Osman, 37. "It's forbidden to carry drink. Forbidden!"

This attitude has outraged many longtime Minnesotans. The widespread response: This is America, and you're free to practice your faith. You're not free to inconvenience others because of those beliefs.

"If they don't want to do that work, they shouldn't be in that business," said Christine Benson, 58, who owns a knitting store in a largely Somalian neighborhood. "They can stuff it."

At least 40,000 Somalis have settled in Minnesota since the early 1990s, fleeing civil war in their East African homeland. The Twin Cities is home to the largest Somalian immigrant community in the nation.

Thousands live in an eclectic Minneapolis neighborhood known as the West Bank. Tucked next to the University of Minnesota, the community is a mix of tattooed punks, longhaired hippies and Somalian families, including women wearing full veils with just a slit for their eyes.

Marian Psihos runs a pharmacy here on Cedar Avenue. She gets her bleached-blond hair cut at the Muslim-owned beauty shop upstairs; she hands candy to the Somalian children who peek shyly in her store. But the idea of cabdrivers turning away passengers on Allah's command spikes her blood pressure.

"You can't come over to this country and think you're going to have it your own way," said Psihos, 72. "The whole world isn't going to change just because you're Muslim."

Jon Wohlwend, punching his code into the pharmacy's ATM, looked up, sharing her outrage.

"You call a cab, but he can't give you a ride," he started.

"Because you have alcohol on your breath," Psihos said, finishing his thought.

"I mean, that's why I need the ride!" said Wohlwend, 39. "Because I'm hammered!"

He left shaking his head. A moment later, Tsega Maoln, who runs the beauty parlor upstairs, popped in for an extra-large can of Comet cleanser. An Ethiopian immigrant, Maoln is Muslim, but not orthodox; she was wearing a short-sleeve shirt and gossiping about a recent night at a bar with friends. Even so, she said she believed more traditional values must be accommodated.

"You don't think they should change the taxi rules for you, do you?" Psihos demanded.

Maoln, 39, tried to formulate an answer.

"You better think twice," Psihos warned, "or you'll lose a customer!"

Maoln busied herself digging cash from her purse.

Federal law requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs -- so long as that doesn't place an "undue burden" on the business. Defining undue burden, however, can be tricky. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission handled 2,541 complaints of faith-based discrimination last year, up nearly 50% from a decade earlier.

Last fall, the Minneapolis transit authority cited the reasonable accommodations law in promising not to assign a driver to buses that carried ads for a local gay and lesbian magazine called Lavender. The driver had objected to the ads -- which carry the slogan "Unleash Your Inner Gay" -- on religious grounds.

The law has also been used to aid Muslim employees. Managers often allow Muslim workers to schedule their breaks to coincide with the five-times-a-day prayer. Target last week reassigned its Muslim cashiers to jobs that don't require handling pork, such as stocking shelves. Other chains have also made such accommodations.

But the taxi driver dispute has resisted easy solutions.

About 70% of the more than 900 drivers licensed to work at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport are Somalian immigrants, spokesman Patrick Hogan said. In the last five years, 4,854 passengers have been denied service because they carried alcohol.

The Somalis contend that all those passengers were quickly seated in another cab. Just as there are smoking and no-smoking taxis, they say, there should be alcohol and no-alcohol cabs.

"Nobody asks you what's in your luggage," said driver Abikar Abdulahi, 24. "But if it's in a box that we can see, we can't take it."

If they ever did knowingly transport alcohol, the drivers say, they would have to answer to God on Judgment Day.

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