By Keith Oppenheim
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MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota (CNN) -- It's always interesting to me, that in my own country, I often get assignments where I walk into a room, and everyone looks and sounds different from me. Different language. Different culture. And sometimes, different beliefs.
On this story, I crossed such a threshold.
I stepped into the taxi depot that serves the Minneapolis - St. Paul International Airport, where drivers sit and wait for their next fare. In this crowded, noisy room, most of the cabbies are Muslims originally from Somalia.
"We're doing a story about the conflict between the cabbies and the airport. The Muslim drivers have been refusing to take passengers carrying alcohol, such as wine or liquor purchased at a duty free shop," I explained.
A group of men gathered around us.
"This is America, we have freedom of religion," says one cabbie. We could see their feelings are intense -- that the issue seems to cut to the core of their identity.
"The Metropolitan Airport Commission is discriminating against us Muslim drivers," says Abdulkaddir Adan, a Somalian-American who's been driving a cab in the Twin Cities for two years.
We asked Adan if he'd give us a ride, and let us interview him while he was driving. He agreed. CNN Photojournalist Derek Davis set up a "lipstick" cam, a small camera, positioned on the dashboard.
From the back seat, I asked why Adan would object if I were carrying alcohol.
"The one who drinks, the one who transports, and the one who makes a business of it, they have the same category," he said.
"So, by my transporting my alcohol in your cab, you are sinning?" I asked.
"Sinning to God, yes," he replied.
Adan is not alone. About three quarters of the 900 cabbies serving the airport are Muslim, and many have been regularly refusing passengers carrying beer, wine or liquor.
In the past five years, 5,400 would-be taxi passengers at the airport were refused service for this very reason, said the Metropolitan Airport Commission, or MAC. Last May, passenger Bob Dildine says he waited for 20 minutes, and five cab drivers would not give him and his daughter a ride. He was carrying wine he bought on vacation.
"They're here to provide service to people," said Dildine. "We were a lawful customer, and we were denied service. That's not our way of doing things."
MAC officials said they don't know of any airport other than the Twin Cities where this has become an issue. MAC officials explain that the area has a growing population of immigrant Somalians, many who've sought jobs as taxi drivers. Last year, MAC consulted local Muslim leaders, who issued a fatwa, or religious opinion.
"It is expressly stated," said Kahlid Elmasry of the Muslim American Society. "Transportation of alcohol for Muslims is against the Islamic faith, and therefore forbidden."
Last September, airport officials sought a compromise, and suggested that distinctive lights could be put on the roofs of cabs operated by drivers who will not transport alcohol. That way, taxi starters -- airport staff who direct people into cabs -- could send passengers with alcohol to those drivers who have no objection.
"But the feedback we got, not only locally but really from around the country and around the world, was almost entirely negative," said airport spokesman Pat Hogan. "People saw that as condoning discrimination against people who had alcohol."
Right now, MAC says any cabbie who refuses a passenger carrying alcohol must go to the back of the line. No small thing, given cabbies often have to wait at the depot up to three hours for the next fare.
But because MAC officials have received thousands of complaints, they're considering stiffer penalties: a 30-day suspension for a first refusal, a two-year suspension for a second.
"We're now at a point where the drivers may have to make a choice," said Hogan.
For Adan, the choice is clear.
"I would leave my job, instead of doing something that's not allowed in my religion," he said.
The interview with Adan took a long time. Our fare came to $150, a very good day for him. Normally, he makes about $100 a day, so it became more clear to us that refusing a fare is a big loss. But Adan said he won't accept the idea that in America a cab driver should allow something his religion forbids.
Keith Oppenheim rides with a Minneapolis cab driver who refuses to drive passengers carrying alcohol.
Behind the ScenesIn our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents and anchors share their experiences covering the news and analyze the stories behind events.