Zoning Dispute or Religious Discrimination?

The video, posted on YouTube in June 2009, shows seven police officers swaggering up the driveway, all bulletproof vests and weapons and search warrant in hand. They’re followed by what we are told is about 10 officials from the city of Phoenix.

Parts two and three of “Pastor Michael Salman Home Raided By Police” since have been removed from the video-sharing website “due to civil litigations against the city,” according to a note posted below part one.

But the narrator, identified as Salman, explains what happened next: “They were coming to our home because they received a complaint from a neighbor … stating we were having church services at our house.”

“What law are we breaking? The law of gathering? The law of religious expression? Is that the law we’re breaking? We’re in America,” he said.

That video by Salman, who posts as harvest777123, has been viewed more than 3,200 times, and the flurry of videos he and his wife Suzanne have posted to the site in the last three weeks, between 10,000 and 49,000 each.

That’s when the Arizona man was sentenced to 60 days in jail “for worshipping on his property,” according to the Salmans’ videos and “Jailed for Home Worship” Facebook page. He reported to jail last Monday.

Since then, news outlets like FOX News and pretty much everybody on the Internet all have jumped on the story of the Arizona pastor jailed for having a Bible study in his home.

But the law Salman is breaking is not one of religious expression, according to the city of Phoenix.

“It’s the building and fire codes,” said Derek Horn, the city’s assistant planning and development director.

“The city has really tried to work with him on this. It’s given him ample time. It’s had different meetings to try to work through this with him. But basically the building does not comply.”

‘Looks like a church’

Horn isn’t talking about Salman’s house, about the earth-toned living room with espresso-colored, leather-look couches the pastor shows off in one video as the place where he and his wife started hosting Bible studies with family and friends in 2007.

He’s talking about the 2,000-square-foot building Salman built in his backyard, the one with rows of chairs to accommodate up to 140 people, with a platform and a pulpit, according to the assistant planning and development director. The one that “looks like a church,” where up to 80 people gathered up to three times a week, he said.

The one Salman called Harvest Christian Fellowship, at which he collected a tithe and for which he claimed church status for tax exemption purposes on his property, according to a fact sheet posted on the city of Phoenix website. The one Salman himself (despite his recent videoed protestations, “It’s not a church. The body of Christ is a church.”) described to the Phoenix New Times in 2008 as a “church.”

The New Times article—worth reading for background on the pastor’s testimony, his previous convictions, his past attempts to establish a church and his ongoing battle with his neighbors—recounts Salman’s plans “to build a church right there in his backyard. He talked about not just Sunday services, but weeknight Bible studies, a workout room and basketball court, even a Christian day care center.” Those plans, according to the article, were met with complaints from neighbors about the possible impact on their property values—complaints, according to the city, that “once apprised of … the City could be held liable for not enforcing safety code requirements in the event anyone was injured on the premises.”

“Meetings of a small group of people like that weekly at a private house for a Bible study or for a sing-along or prayer service, that’s no problem here,” Horn said. “I’ve done that at my home a number of times in the past.”

A house of worship on residential property isn’t even a problem. That’s allowed in the city’s zoning codes, he said.

But that’s an assembly use of a building, he said. It would require a special use permit. It also would require permits to modify the building to add things like exit lights and sprinklers and the access for people with disabilities required by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, he said.

“He just has to do whatever work necessary to make it into an assembly-like building. It was permitted as a residential accessory building, and he’s using it as an assembly building, so it needs certain safety features you would not find in a residential accessory building,” Horn said.

‘A reason for these codes’

The building has been permitted, as a “garage” in 2007 and “private game room” in 2008, according to the city and letters Salman has flashed in his videos. Those permits stated “any other occupancy or use (business, commercial, assembly, church, etc.) is expressly prohibited pursuant to the City of Phoenix Building Codes and Zoning Ordinances.”

And yet, in 2009 and 2010, Salman held church services in the outbuilding “without proper permits and in violation of safety concerns,” the city said.

Salman first was cited in May 2007 and pleaded responsible in July 2007 for building without the required permit, according to the city of Phoenix. Harvest Christian Fellowship then was found responsible for 96 civil code violations related to the building and its use in January 2010, and Salman, for 67 Class 1 misdemeanors in August of that year in Phoenix Municipal Court, according to the city.

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“Everyone is entitled under the United States Constitution to worship as they please,” the municipal court said at the time of its decision. “But there is a reason for these codes, and that is for public safety. And that, I believe, is all that the State is asking is that the Code violations be rectified.”

Those convictions were upheld in June by the Maricopa Superior Court, which sentenced Salman to serve his current jail time, the city said.

‘A case of religious liberty and discrimination’

For the record, Salman has called the city’s building and fire code claims “ a bunch of hogwash” and pointed to cars parked outside his neighbors’ homes as proof they are “allowed to have gatherings and we’re not.” (No mention whether those neighbors have constructed outbuildings to host those weekly birthday and Superbowl parties.) He has said he has appealed the superior court’s decision to the United States Courts for the Ninth Circuit, although a previous appeal to federal court was dismissed.

His lawyer, John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute, has told FOX & Friends he believes it is a case of religious discrimination, something “you might expect … in Iran or around the world … but happening in the United States, this is so shocking it’s beyond belief.”

And Attorney David C. Gibbs, Jr., founder and president of the Christian Law Association, agrees with Salman and his lawyer this isn’t a case of a boy crying wolf, or a pastor crying persecution.

“Emphatically, I would say I think it is a case of religious liberty and discrimination,” Gibbs said. “Historically, (this is) one of the things religious liberty has had to contend with. … No one can practice their religion if they can’t occupy the land.”

The CLA founder and president “wouldn’t call this type of thing common,” he said; in fact, “lots and lots of ministries have started in somebody’s living room … and communities all over have accommodated them.” But he would call it a cause for concern for others hosting Bible studies and home churches in their own homes.

Meantime, Relevant commenters have pointed to passages in the Bible that call Christians to “be a good citizen.”

“All governments are under God. Insofar as there is peace and order, it’s God’s order. So live responsibly as a citizen. If you’re irresponsible to the state, then you’re irresponsible with God, and God will hold you responsible. Duly constituted authorities are only a threat if you’re trying to get by with something. Decent citizens should have nothing to fear” (Romans 13:1-3 MSG).

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