City ordinance and state regulations will require the Muslim owners of a prospective Lincoln hookah lounge to stock and serve alcohol even though they don't want to because it violates the tenets of their faith.
Mustafa Albusharif and Mohanad Akrawee want to open 88 Hookah Lounge at 16th and O streets, with the focus on the water pipes used to smoke flavored tobacco.
"Our goal is to be a chill place for students and to show the community of Lincoln a Mediterranean or Middle Eastern style of smoking hookah," Albusharif told the City Council this month.
They want to allow customers to also smoke cigars and enjoy Middle Eastern-style chai teas and juices.
But they'll have to offer alcohol, too, or risk not being able to open.
The natives of Iraq have been trying to find a way to open a hookah business without liquor for several years, but they've been told city law requires them to get a liquor license to permit smoking indoors.
After learning of the issue earlier this month, City Councilman Roy Christensen said he started working with the city's law department to draft an ordinance that would allow businesses like 88 Hookah Lounge to operate in compliance with their faith and the law.
"We need to fix our ordinance," said Christensen, who believes the city's ordinance can be eliminated because state law governs the issue.
State lawmakers, addressing a Nebraska Supreme Court ruling that cigar bars were unconstitutional, passed amendments in 2015 to allow businesses tailored to smoking to operate.
Those changes exempted cigar bars from the Nebraska Clean Indoor Air Act and created a carve-out for tobacco retailers, often known as smoke shops, that do not sell other items such as alcohol, coffee, soft drinks, candy, groceries or gasoline.
In Lincoln, to allow smoking, businesses are required to have a cigar bar and a liquor license. To get a liquor license, the state requires a business to serve alcohol.
One of Albusharif's friends runs a hookah lounge in Omaha, where those businesses operate as smoke shops under an exemption outlined in the amended state law, he said.
He found Lincoln's requirements confusing.
City Attorney Jeff Kirkpatrick said the challenge of addressing this problem is that Lincoln's ordinances cannot be more permissive than state law, and permitting a hookah lounge to allow indoor tobacco smoking and sell coffees and teas would violate that state law.
Kirkpatrick said he's not sure how the hookah bars in Omaha are operating.
Albusharif and Akrawee want to provide a place for many of the international students from the Middle East who attend college in Lincoln to unwind and have a taste of home.
On one side of the lounge they plan to have booths, couches and a game room, and on the other side offer an area for studying, Albusharif said.
And whatever the law governing their business is, they will follow it, the 30-year-old said.
The City Council recommended the liquor license request of 88 Hookah Lounge be approved, and the Liquor Control Commission will decide on the license later this summer.
If approved by the commission, 88 Hookah Lounge would be the only hookah business in the city.
"Hopefully we get this business open and show the community of Lincoln the tradition of our country," Albusharif said.