On July 9, 2012, Michael Salman began serving a 60 day sentence in the Maricopa County, Arizona jail for his persistence in having private worship and Bible studies with his family and friends in his home.
In 2005 Michael Salman, who supports his family by operating two businesses in the Phoenix area, began holding Bible study meetings in his living room with his wife and friends. Salman describes himself as “a pastor of the Christian faith” and has been ordained by elders in the Church of God in Christ, but he says his Sunday meetings with his wife and their family of six children and friends are “private meetings” for Bible study and worship.
In 2007 Michael and his wife came into conflict with Phoenix city authorities after a neighbor complained to city officials that Salman and his wife Suzanne were holding “religious meetings” at their home. They were informed that as a “religious meeting,” their Bible study and worship could only be held in a building that conformed to Phoenix commercial code requirements. According to a report on Christian News.net Salman said that he made changes to the house to comply with requirements as best as possible, but then the city changed the code.
That was the beginning of what has since become an ongoing battle between Michael Salman and the City of Phoenix over its code restrictions. According to code enforcement officials, if Salman holds “worship gatherings” on his private property of almost 5 acres, it is officially considered to be “an occupancy” and must be subject to commercial code regulations.
In combating the city’s regulations, Salman has argued that the meetings are not “public.” “The only people who go in that building is my wife and I and our guests,” he says. “People have a right to gather at their home and on their property with their guests. Why can’t we have people as our guests?”
The city of Phoenix claims, however, that any religious worship cannot be considered “private.” Salman has been cited in violation of 67 code regulations on his property which now includes a 2,000 “accessory” building that the city approved for recreational use. When Michael and Suzanne decided to move their home worship meetings into the larger space on their property, city officials cited them for violating the city’s commercial zoning code.
“That type of enforcement is against the law; it’s unconstitutional,” Salman stated in an online video. “You cannot tell people that they can gather for recreation, civic, social, amusement and everything, but then if they gather to worship Jesus Christ or they have some form of religious worship in their home, suddenly they’re disobeying the law because their home should be “an occupancy.”
ChristianNews.net reported that the city continued to press the matter and in 2010 it filed criminal charges against Salman over the zoning issue. Salman sought relief through the state court. The state refused to hear the case, sending it back to the local level. Salman then attempted to file a federal lawsuit, but District Judge James A. Tielborg, nevertheless dismissed the case, stating that Salman could not file until the state court’s review was complete. Salman then re-filed when the state ruling was completed, but his challenge was again dismissed. After he had exhausted all his options for any legal settlement, he was forced to surrender himself to the Maricopa County Jail on June 17, 2012, to begin serving a sentence of 60 days in jail, to be followed by three years’ probation. Salman was also fined $12,180.
However, as ChristianNews.net reported, after arriving at the county jail, Salman was released three hours later because the facility’s computer did recognize the code he had purportedly violated. His reprieve was short-lived, however. Subsequently, city Judge Sally Gaines rescheduled Salman’s sentence to begin on July 9, 2012, and according to ChristianNews.net the assistant city prosecutor, John Tutelman, who publically characterized Salman as a “rebel,” also asked the court to revoke his probation and convert it into a 2 1/2 year jail sentence since he had continued to hold worship gatherings on his property despite court orders. Another hearing is scheduled for July 17, 2012 to consider the status of Michael Salman’s probation.
Unfortunately, the Salman case is not unique. As the Christian Post has reported, “A California couple experienced a similar situation last year when the City of San Juan Capistrano fined them for holding Bible studies and religious gatherings in their home. Neighbors had complained that the meetings often attracted dozens of people, dozens of vehicles and too much noise.” According to the Christian Post, Chuck and Stephanie Fromm were fined $300. City officials said they were in violation of a municipal code that requires religious, fraternal or nonprofit organizations in residential neighborhoods to have a “conditional-use permit” to hold such gatherings.
The question is whether cities across the nation will follow this trend of violating the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment by placing limits on home gatherings for worship and Bible study under the guise of “zoning and code regulations.” Hopefully, Michael and Suzanne Salman’s case will shine a light on such efforts, and not only will they win relief under the law, but other attempts to move in that direction will be stopped.