A Phoenix man has been sentenced to 60 days in jail after he refused to stop hosting Bible studies in the privacy of his home – in violation of the city’s building code laws.
However, the Phoenix city prosecutor’s office said the violations have nothing to do with religious freedom — and everything to do with public safety.
“It came down to zoning and proper permitting,” said Vicki Hill, the chief assistant city prosecutor. “Any time you are holding a gathering of people continuously as he does — we have concerns about people being able to exit the facility properly in case there is a fire — and that’s really all this comes down to.”
According to court documents provided to Fox News Radio, 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 probation and a $12,180 fine. He could be jailed as early as next week unless the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals grants an emergency injunction.
“They’re cracking down on religious activities and religious use,” Salman told Fox News Radio. “They’re attacking what I as a Christian do in the privacy of my home.”
“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.”
However, the Arizona courts consistently ruled against Salman – ultimately declaring that he was engaged in church activities and that the city did not violate his constitutional rights to religious freedom.
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.
Hill said the city became aware of the meetings after neighbors apparently complained about traffic congestion.
In 2007 they received a letter from the city informing them that the Bible studies were not permitted in their living room because it was in violation of the construction code.
A few months later, members of the Phoenix Fire Dept. broke up the family’s Good Friday fellowship. As many as 20 people were in their backyard eating a meal when firefighters threatened to call the police – unless their guests left the premises.
“Immediately after that, we decided to contact an attorney,” Salman told Fox News Radio. “The city emphasized that bible studies or church-related activities are not permitted on residences because you have non-family members coming to the home and such use is considered church use.”
In the summer of 2008 firefighters once again broke up a gathering – and Salman finally reached his breaking point. He ordered the firefighters to leave his property.
“We told them they had no right,” he said. “They had been harassing us since February. This is our home. We are a private gathering. This is Christians gathering on my private property.”
The city ignored the Salmans until 2009 – when they built a 2,000 square foot building in their backyard. Salman said he applied for and was granted the proper building permits. He also said the building has passed a city inspection.
“At that point we took our Bible study from our living room – and we moved it into that building,” he said. “We started worshipping in that building every weekend.”
However, Hill said Salman has “mischaracterized the facts” of the permit. She said he was given a permit to convert a garage into a game room.
“Any other occupancy or use – business, commercial, assembly, church, etc, is expressly prohibited pursuant to the city of Phoenix building code and ordinances,” she told Fox News Radio.
On June 11, 2009, the Phoenix Police Dept. showed up with a search warrant. When they had completed the search, Salman was charged with 67 code violations.
He was charged with not having emergency exit signs over the doors. He was charged with not having handicap parking spaces and not having handicap ramps.
“Imagine everything that a public building would have or a commercial building would have,” he said. “Anything we didn’t have was a violation.”
The largest source of contention has been whether or not Salman is running a church. He insists it is not.
But his building certainly resembles a church. It has chairs for as many as 40 people. There is a pulpit. There’s a sign out front – along with a cross.
“Just because visitors come to my home three times a week and we discuss the Bible – if that’s their definition of a church then so be it,” 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?” he asked. “People have a right to gather on their property as long as parking is available, as long as they aren’t parking in the street, as long as they aren’t violating noise ordinances.”
Hill said the facts are clear.
“He built a structure that he said wasn’t a church — that is in fact — a church,” she said. “It’s a church.”
And the courts agreed — noting in a Jan. 4, 2010 ruling: “The 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 fire and zoning codes.”
Salman’s attorney has filed an appeal with the federal court – and unless they intervene – Salman will start serving his sentence on July 9.