Fox News, Glenn Beck, and a host of conservative bloggers have hit the roof about Monday’s jailing of Phoenix pastor Michael Salman. They’re pitching it as a religious freedom case: Salman, according to them, is in jail for holding Bible studies in his living room. I gave an overview here.
But it’s a complicated case–Michael and Suzanne Salman have been battling the City of Phoenix and their neighbors for six years over what they’re convinced is their constitutional right to build a church building and hold services in their back yard.
The city published a timeline of events yesterday. The opening paragraphs give their reasons for citing and finally jailing Mr. Salman for code violations:
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 Michael Salman court case is about building safety. Building and safety codes are in-place to protect the safety and welfare of all of our residents. . . . [T]he building that is used for regular assembly does not meet construction and fire code requirements for assembly[.]
Here are the highlights from the city’s timeline, collated with additional information from other sources:
2007: Michael Salman requested a permit for a detached garage on his property. Before receiving any permit, he built the garage anyway. He was cited for and pleaded responsible to building without the required permit. Notice: This wasn’t a religious liberty issue. Salman just didn’t care about the law.
Also in 2007, Salman spoke publicly of building a 4,200 square foot building that would sit three feet from the property line. His neighbors say he was talking Sunday services and weeknight Bible studies, and planning a workout facility, basketball court, and daycare center in addition to the sanctuary.
When the neighbors expressed concerns about what the church complex would do to their property values, says neighbor Tom Woods:
He gave us a lecture on the fact that . . . if we were true Christians, we ought to be willing to sacrifice a little bit.
That fall, the city notified him that he needed to get permits before holding church services on his property.
2008: Harvest Christian Fellowship Community Church was issued a building permit for a 2,000 square foot private game room behind the Salmans’ house. The permit stated:
Any other occupancy or use (business, commercial, assembly, church, etc.) is expressly prohibited pursuant to the City of Phoenix Building Code and Zoning Ordinances.
Also in 2008, the Maricopa County Assessor’s Office approved the Salmans’ request to have the property classified as church property. Tucson Citizen writer J. J. Hensley says:
When the inspector visited the home, a sign outside the property included the name of the church, according to court documents, and the inspector found a podium, folding chairs and other items that allowed him to grant the property tax-exempt status.
According to Hensley, the Salmans haven’t paid taxes on their property since then.
2009: The church began holding services in the building without permits, and the city cited Salman. The city was upset because the place had 145 chairs, but no sprinklers or emergency exits. The Salmans told a Phoenix New Times reporter at the time that they’d built it to use for religious services. The reporter wrote of their “game room”:
The interior looks like any number of the Valley’s small, Bible-based churches, from the altar to the neat rows of blue-quilted chairs to the reproduction of da Vinci’s The Last Supper on the wall.
2010: In January, Harvest Christian Fellowship Community Church was found responsible for 96 civil code violations–and fined, apparently, about $18,000. The Court said:
[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.
In August, Salman was found guilty of 67 Class 1 Misdemeanors. That Court said:
Everyone is entitled under the United States Constitution to worship as they please. 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.
Salman appealed the convictions.
2011: In June, the Maricopa County Superior Court upheld the convictions and sentenced Salman to 60 days in jail, a fine, and probation. Prosecutors recommended that the sentence be served out in a series of weekend stays. Judge Sallie Gaines opted for a straight 60 days, saying:
[T]he Defendant was engaged in public or church activities, and further that Defendant’s convictions did not violate his Constitutional right to religious freedom.
2012: Salman began serving his sentence on July 9th.
♦ ♦ ♦
Four quick observations:
1. The Salmans want to have their cake and eat it. Depending on what best serves their interests at the moment, they want to shape-shift back and forth between being a traditional institutional church with all the trappings–a name, a pastor, a building, and that all-important tax-exempt status–and being just a little Bible study group.
2. The Salmans apparently lied to the City of Phoenix. They constructed a building, telling others they intended to use it to hold religious meetings. They told the city the building was to be a game room . . . and then used it to hold church services. They did this knowing the permit they had received specifically disallowed church and commercial uses.
3. The Salmans have been lousy neighbors. Mr. Salman appears to have a great grasp of his constitutional rights, and a very poor grasp of consideration for other people.
4. The City didn’t start with strong arm tactics. This has been going on since 2006. But civil judgments–the church was fined $18,000 two years ago–were having no effect. That didn’t leave the City of Phoenix–which, knowing the church was in violation of safety codes, would have been liable if, say, the building had burned down with people inside–with a lot of options. City Prosecutor Aaron Carreon-Ainsa says:
It has to do with whether there’s an exit sign over the door, or with the number of doors. It’s an assembly-use case. What people have called us about is: ‘How can we do this with a person holding Bible studies with his family and friends in the living room?’ That’s not the case; that never has been the case.
If you’re interested in reading more on the Salmans, the Phoenix New Times has been covering the case since 2008. Here’s an index to their articles. This 2008 article gives valuable background of the current dispute.