Arizona man fights city hall over church building
by Dave Ficere
“Homeowner jailed for hosting Bible study,” the headline screamed. It happened in Arizona where a Phoenix man is serving a 60-day jail sentence for violating city zoning laws.
Michael Salman’s jailing came as the result of an ongoing feud between the city of Phoenix and the ordained pastor over weekly Bible studies he held in his home. Salman claims the attacks on his family are nothing more than a crackdown on religious liberty. “They’re attacking what I – as a Christian – do in the privacy of my home,” he said. “At what point does the government have the right to state that you cannot have family and friends over at your home three times a week?”
The Salman case has been touted by some in the Christian community as an infringement upon religious freedoms…but as Paul Harvey famously said, “And now the rest of the story…”
The issue began in 2007 when Salman contacted the city about building on his property, telling them he intended to construct a detached garage. In 2008 his church, Harvest Christian Fellowship Community Church, was granted a permit to build a “2,000 square foot private game room accessory to an existing single family residence.”
The permit stated, “Any other occupancy or use (business, commercial, assembly, church, etc.) is expressly prohibited (PPT emphasis) pursuant to the City of Phoenix Building Code and Zoning Ordinances.”
Salman came to the attention of authorities after he began holding meetings in the backyard building that attracted as many as 80 people and generated complaints from neighbors. City officials determined that the building and weekly gatherings constituted a church and violated numerous building code regulations.
According to a press release from the city, “Mr. Salman 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 and claimed a church status for tax exemption purposes on his property.”
In January 2010, Harvest Christian Fellowship was found responsible for 96 civil code violations. In its ruling, a court noted that “[T]he State is not saying the Salmans can’t run a church or have worship services at the location, but the State is saying that if they do so, they must do it properly and in accord with the building, fire, and zoning codes.”
After several appeals and some legal maneuvering, Salman surrendered to authorities and was jailed on July 9 of this year, but some Christian organizations claim the case is one of religious persecution.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said the Salman case should serve as a wake-up call to Christians across the nation. “We are seeing jurisdictions using zoning ordinances to crack down on the exercise of religious freedom and people are not able to do with their own property that which is an exercise of their religious freedom.”
Perkins also takes issue with the city deciding what constitutes a church. “The definition is nebulous,” he says. “A family of more than eight people who gather for prayer could meet the definition of a church.”
Conservatives often cringe when groups or individuals cry racism where none exists. Similarly, Christians need to be careful not to charge others with religious persecution before all the facts are known or reported. Salman’s case appears to have less to do with persecution and more about him repeatedly breaking laws against constructing a church building in his backyard. Equally troubling are allegations that Salman knowingly falsified a building permit.
Regardless of where you side on this controversy, pray for:
· Michael Salman and his family as he serves his jail sentence.
· Christians in America to honor the biblical mandate of Romans 13 regarding submission to governmental authorities.
· Phoenix city officials involved in this case that they will rule fairly and according to the law without bias or prejudice.
Dave Ficere’s articles and writing have been featured in a wide array of media including radio promotions, devotional publications, websites, magazines and newsletters. Dave is married to Patt and works and lives in a suburb of Phoenix, AZ.