But now the family was scrambling to avert a crisis. Local officials had declared a few days earlier that, this year, the Rababehs’ Lebanese Butchers Slaughterhouse would not be granted the special-event permit it was required to have to accommodate its hundreds of expected customers. And now the town had placed a police barricade out front to block customers from walking through the slaughterhouse doors.
“These people are depending on me to deliver this once a year,” said Samir Rababeh, who helps his father, business owner Kheder Rababeh, manage Lebanese Butchers. “I don’t know what to tell them.”
To town officials in Warrenton, a rural commuter community 50 miles west of Washington, this was a zoning issue. Town officials said they had denied the permit because the slaughterhouse was routinely in violation of local building codes and zoning ordinances — violations they had warned the Rababehs about — and the town had had enough.
The Rababehs didn’t deny the violations, but they claimed that they were the targets of religious discrimination, bullied for years by a neighbor who doesn’t like them and a town government that they say holds Muslims to a higher standard. Issuing the permit denial on such short notice gave them no time to comply, the Rababehs said.
Town officials ultimately allowed the slaughterhouse to proceed with its holiday operations as planned. But they maintain that the zoning concerns persist.
Competing narratives like the ones surrounding Lebanese Butchers Slaughterhouse are not uncommon. Claims of discriminatory conduct by government officials toward Muslims have been heard nationwide.
But suspicion of such ill intentions has been amplified in an environment in which 3 in 4 Muslims think the president of the United States is unfriendly to their religion, according to the Pew Research Center, and the words “Muslim ban” have become household terminology.
The alleged misuse of local zoning laws to discriminate against religious facilities and businesses owned by Muslims has sparked lawsuits and federal investigations in towns and cities throughout the country over the past decade. And courts have often sided with the Muslim plaintiffs.
The Justice Department sued neighboring Culpeper County in 2016 for religious discrimination after it had denied the local Muslim community a permit necessary for building a mosque. The county ultimately relented.
'I feel like it's anti-Muslim'
In Warrenton, the denial on the eve of a holiday many liken in importance to Christmas drew the attention of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group known as CAIR.
“We’re super-sensitive when it comes to issues of zoning, or claimed zoning reasons to prevent the community from exercising its protected religious rights, because our organization has been dealing with this issue nationwide for so many years,” said Nihad Awad, CAIR’s executive director.
Within hours of CAIR’s intervention, town officials relented and said the slaughterhouse would be able to proceed with its holiday operations as planned.
Nearly 200 customers showed up amid torrential downpours last Tuesday, the start of the three-day holiday. They braved the mud and an hours-long wait to select the perfect animal, see it slaughtered along halal guidelines, and then cart the butchered meat home to share with family, friends and the poor, as is customary.
“It’s an integral part of our culture. I’ve been coming here since I was growing up,” said Awais Paracha, a 21-year-old pre-med student from Ashburn, who, like many others, had decided to fast until the meat was home and the holiday meal was served.
Samir Rababeh, his brother, Imad, and their employees in heavy-duty aprons hacked away at meat on hooks and on chopping blocks. Their younger sister, Ayah, ran the cash register and answered phones in the office. And the family patriarch, Kheder Rababeh — one in a long line of Lebanese butchers — who opened the slaughterhouse in 1989, greeted old friends with enthusiasm.
Few customers were aware that less than 24 hours before, a police car waited outside to block their entrance and, if the town had prevailed, there would have been a lot of confused and frustrated customers.
For the Rababehs, the immediate crisis had been avoided. But the tension from both sides remained.
Lebanese Butchers is the last slaughterhouse in Warrenton, and Town Attorney Whitson Robinson said it has held on to its legal right to operate only because it has been in existence since before Warrenton passed new zoning regulations.
It had a consistent history of “noncompliance,” he said, forcing town officials to “bend over backward” year after year to accommodate its holiday needs. The Eid al-Adha crowds cause additional traffic, he said. They require extra traffic supervision from the police, a service the Rababeh family pays for. And neighbors have routinely complained about the smell, Robinson said.
“It’s just kind of a common thing that is known around town,” he added.
Robinson provided The Washington Post with the warning notice of various code violations that officials sent to the slaughterhouse in early August — including walls, roofing and fencing in need of repair, a shed in need of demolition and an unpermitted trailer.
“We’ve tried over the years to be accommodating as town officials,” Robinson said. “But at some point, you have to say that you’re not in compliance. This is a public safety issue. It’s time to get truly into compliance.”
He said the family has been given 90 days to address the violations. CAIR said it would help. And the family has agreed.
But the way the Rababehs see it, their problems remain rooted in racial and religious prejudice.
“Honestly, I feel like it’s anti-Muslim,” said Ayah Rababeh, 17. “We’ve been here for so long . . . [and] we’re the only people they bother.”
Muddy situations and misunderstandings
For years, David Jenkins, the owner of the automotive repair business next door, has complained about the slaughterhouse to authorities, the Rababehs’ longtime attorney Michael Hadeed said.
“How many years, how many complaints, how long before this event causes damage to people or personal property?” Jenkins wrote to the town council on the eve of Eid al-Adha in 2014, in a letter published by the local newspaper. “Does the (Lebanese Butcher Farm) slaughterhouse have proper liability coverage for this event? . . . Does the slaughterhouse have proper animal control? Obviously not. Proper crowd control to keep eventgoers and event parking off our premises? Past documented events tell obviously not on this as well.”
Jenkins regularly photographed and filmed the Rababehs and their business, Hadeed said. He put pressure on the town council to pass an odor ordinance more than a decade ago and then called the police repeatedly to report a smell, he said.
“Growing up, my dad would go up to [Jenkins] and say, ‘What do you want? I’m here to stay.’ And he would say: ‘No, you’re not. This isn’t your town,’ ” Samir Rababeh said.
“He’s dedicated his life to harassing our business. And I guess this year, they gave in to him,” he said.
Robinson, the town attorney, declined to name the neighbors whom he said had complained about the slaughterhouse, and Jenkins said he didn’t want to talk about his history with the family.
Rababeh said the town’s denial of their permit application came Friday evening, one business day before the holiday, leaving little time to appeal.
He also said that Warrenton Town Manager Brannon Godfrey had “explicitly told me: ‘No matter what you do, I will not issue you a permit,’ ” a comment he took to mean that the town was biased against him because of his religion.
Godfrey said the quote was accurate, but it was a reference to Rababeh’s missing a deadline, not his religion. During a meeting in which Rababeh detailed the steps that the slaughterhouse had taken to address a previous zoning concern, he asked whether the changes would be enough to get the permit, Godfrey said.
“I responded essentially that there was nothing he can do to get the permit at this time, because he missed the 90 day requirement for submitting a Special Event Permit application,” he said in an email.
Robinson said the family filed its application with less than 90 days’ notice every year, but “that part doesn’t really bother me.” His main concern, he said, was public safety.
In an email to CAIR following the reversal of the town’s permit denial, Warrenton Mayor Carter Nevill wrote, “I want to assure you that, as mayor, ensuring that the application of and enforcement of the ordinances in no way infringed upon the right to free exercise of religion was of utmost importance to me and was something I take very seriously.”
“Protection of religious freedom is an absolute in my book, especially among those most likely to be persecuted. And particularly in these times,” Nevill wrote.
Awad said that these situations are often muddy, with plenty of room for misunderstanding.
“From my standpoint, I just want to make sure that Muslims do not feel treated differently or discriminated against because of their faith,” he said. “At the same time, we try to remind our community members that there are violations that you have to take care of or you cannot operate your business.”
Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.