A Phoenix man who violated city zoning laws by hosting a Bible study in the privacy of his home has started serving a 60-day jail sentence for his crimes.
Michael Salman was found guilty in the City of Phoenix Court of 67 code violations. He was sentenced to 60 days in jail along with three years of probation and a $12,180 fine. A spokesperson for the city attorney confirmed that Salman reported to a county jail Monday afternoon.
Members of Salman’s Bible study group posted video of their teacher as he self-reported to the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. It was an emotional scene.
“We believe that people should not be prohibiting other people from having Bible studies in their homes,” Salman said outside the jail. “We believe what they are doing is wrong. It’s private property. It’s our home.”
Salman embraced some of his Bible study members before offering final remarks.
“At the very end, after all is said and done, God will ultimately have glory in this,” he said. “We do this for the glory of the Lord.”
Someone off camera could be heard remarking, “I love you, pastor.”
Salman’s incarceration is the result of a long-running feud between the ordained pastor and the city of Phoenix over weekly Bible studies that Salman and his wife hosted in their home. City officials determined that the weekly gatherings constituted a church – and therefore violated a number of code regulations.
The controversy erupted in 2009 when nearly a dozen police officers raided the Salman’s home and a 2,000 square foot building in their backyard. The family had moved their Bible study into the building after the group outgrew their living room.
The charges that sent Salman to jail were a result of that raid – ranging from not posting exit lights above their doors – to not having handicap ramps or handicap parking.
Salman told Fox News Radio the attacks on his family were 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?”
But city officials said it was a matter of zoning and proper permitting – not religious freedom. They said he was given a permit to convert a garage into a game room – not a church.
“Any other occupancy or use – business, commercial, assembly, church, etc. is expressly prohibited pursuant to the city of Phoenix building code and ordinances,” said Vicki Hill, the chief assistant city prosecutor.
The irony of that rule was not lost on Salman.
“If I had people coming to my home on a regular basis for poker night or Monday Night Football, it would be permitted,” he said. “But when someone says to us we are not allowed to gather because of religious purposes – that is when you have discrimination.”
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council said the attack against Salman should serve as a wake-up call to Christians across the nation.
“Any time religious freedom or the freedom of speech is infringed upon, Americans should be concerned,” Perkins told Fox News Radio. “We are seeing jurisdictions using zoning ordinances to crack down the exercise of religious freedom.”
Perkins said there is a movement in recent years for churches to move back to an Early Church model where Christians met in private homes – rather than church facilities. As a result, he said some communities are in fact cracking down on what people do in the privacy of their homes.
“We’re seeing more Bible studies, home-based churches, small groups meeting together,” he said. “and people are not able to do with their own property that which is an exercise of their religious freedom.”
Perkins also took issue with the city of Phoenix deciding what constituted a church.
“The definition is nebulous,” he said. “A family of more than eight people who gather for prayer could meet the definition of a church.”
“It goes back to religious freedom,” Perkins said. “As long as it’s not posing a threat or a nuisance to the surrounding property owners, people should be free to do with their property as they see fit.”
Salman’s friends have launched an online petition urging that he be set free. Click here.