Persecution against Christians in America continues to intensify as Pastor Michael Salman, a Christian living in Phoenix, AZ, was sentenced to 60 days in jail (and faces 3 more years) for holding a bible study in his home. While the city of Phoenix stands by its decision basing it in on violations of city zoning codes, the facts behind the case reveal a great deal of misinformation being spread and a family that is being over-prosecuted because of a home Bible study. This article will examine both sides in what is becoming an increasingly controversial story.
The long-running feud between Salman and the City of Phoenix culminated in the summer of 2009 when nearly a dozen police along with city inspectors raided their home. Armed with a search warrant, police confined the Salman family to the living room as they combed the property looking for violations.
Salman is the owner of Mighty Mike’s Burgers — and he is also an ordained pastor. He and his wife have been hosting Bible studies on their 4.6-acre property since 2005. The gatherings were originally attended by as many as 15 people.
Salman was found guilty of code violations for hosting Bible studies on his 4.6 acre property, which he has been doing for the past 7 years. He was sentenced to 60 days in jail along with three years probation and ordered to pay a $12,180 fine.
His wife, Susanne, was nervous about her husband being away for two months but stood by their decision to hold the Bible study gatherings.
“Last time it was hard, and we know it will be hard again — being a single mom with six kids,” she told Christian News Network. “[But], no matter what happens, and no matter what comes, we have to stand for His word.” (source)
There is a great deal of varying information going back and forth in this matter. But what seems to be clear is that since 2006, the Salman’s have been hosting a home Bible study on their 4.6 acre property in Phoenix. These private gatherings normally included 15-20 people. The Salman’s soon built a separate structure on their property to host the studies. Even though their guests parked on their property and not in the street, in 2007, neighbors of the Salmans allegedly complaint to city officials about the gatherings. The Salman’s then received 3 letters from the City demanding that they cease their Bible studies. The Salman’s continued holding the Bible studies and in 2009 their home was raised by the police and city officials. The video is below.
The city charged Salman with 67 code violations for not properly meeting safety standards required for a church building. Their contention is that Salman’s Bible study makes his home legally a church, which is a public facility and thus must meet City zoning codes.
“The case is about the building that is used for regular assembly does not meet construction and fire code requirements for assembly,” the City of Phoenix stated Thursday.
Mr. Salman had regular gatherings of up to 80 people. He held services twice a week and collected a tithe at the services. The building that he held services in had a dais and chairs were aligned in a pew formation. He held himself out as a being a church through the media (Harvest Christian Church) and claimed a church status for tax exemption purposes on his property,” the fact sheet stated. (source)
However, as Salman’s legal defense team at the Rutherford Institute have advised, these city codes apply to public facilities and not private homes. The Salman’s do not permit strangers to come to their Bible study. They do not advertise their Bible study to the public and their argument is that as a private residence conducting private activities, there should be no issue. The Phoenix city code specifically says that a private home and all “accessory buildings” should be governed by the International Residential Code, not the Construction Code under which Salman was convicted. (source)
The City claims that it is concerned about safety issues but other attorneys familiar with this legal area disagree:
But Brad Dacus, founding president of the Pacific Justice Institute – which has defended several home Bible study cases – weighed in and disagreed with the city’s argument.
“The city is dealing with a 5-acre parcel of land. Based on the information we have received, there are no bona fide health or safety concerns that have been brought to light,” said Dacus to CP on Tuesday. “There have been no injuries incurred by any individuals that have come to gather for this purpose. There are no imminent risks of injuries for anyone gathered for this religious purpose. And there are no bona fide nuisances that have arisen since its usage.
“This attempt by the city of Phoenix is an overbearing usage of their authority in a manner that is clearly not warranted.” (source)
Beginning and End covered a very similar legal battle that a couple in California went through after being fined repeatedly for holding private Bible studies with friends in their home. In that case, the city of San Juan Capistrano reversed its initial ruling and allowed the couple to hold Bible studies with out acquiring “use permits” normally reserved for commercial and public facilities.
Salman is currently serving his 60 day sentence but awaits a further court ruling that could lead to him serving 3 years in jail. The Rutherford Institute has file an emergency petition to the Arizona Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus, asking the Court to intervene in the case and overturn the sentence.
“While Michael Salman should never have been charged with a crime for simply exercising his religious beliefs on his own property, to keep him in prison while the question of his basic rights is being considered is the ultimate injustice,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “The continued imprisonment of Michael Salman for simply worshipping God with his family and friends on his own property demonstrates the lengths to which government bureaucrats will go in service of imposing dubious regulations on average citizens.” (source)
- Salman classified the Bible study building as a “game room” with the city, not to be deceptive, but because it was for private use and not a public facility. Classifying it as a church would have meant it was open to the public.
- The Salman’s run a ministry that is separate from their Bible study (their ministry primarily works in jails and prisons across Arizona). Salman is a pastor in this ministry. As such, he declares his home a “parsonage” for tax purposes. A parsonage is not a church, is just the legal title for a pastor’s private home. The Bible study, nor the building used for the Bible study are not the reasons for this tax distinction.
- The first three letters from the City ordering the Salmans to cease and desist from their Bible study, mentioned nothing regarding safety or fire hazards, but focused solely on the activity: Bible study. One letter specifically stated: “The simple and direct answer is that the Bible Study use requires a change of occupancy..and requires a certificate of occupancy.” (source)
As always seems to be the case, the neighbors of the Salman’s are permitted to hold large gatherings for football games, boy scout meetings or other social gatherings with no interference from the city.
Pray for the Salman family as they go through this legal battle and for their legal team to prevail. As more and more persecution against Christians takes place in the United States, Christians need to be that much stronger in prayer for the Gospel of Jesus Christ to continue to be proclaimed.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; — Romans 1:16