A Phoenix man who held weekly Bible studies at his home has had the book thrown at him over the religious gatherings. Michael Salman (pictured above) has been sentenced to two months in jail and more than $12,000 in fines because the group sessions at his home were against the city's building code, Fox News Radio reported.
"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."
Vicki Hill, Phoenix's chief assistant city prosecutor, said religious freedom had nothing to do with it and that it was a matter of public safety.
"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," Hill told Fox News Radio. "It came down to zoning and proper permitting."
The battle between Salman and the city of Phoenix is a longstanding feud. Hill said that Salman's neighbors complained of the gatherings back in 2007 because they were causing too much traffic congestion. Originally, about 15 people would attend the Bible studies, Fox News Radio reported.
But that number began to grow, and that's when Phoenix officials sent Salman a letter saying that his living room gatherings were in violation of the city's building codes.
When he didn't stop hosting the groups, the Phoenix Fire Department broke up a Good Friday gathering Salman was hosting at his home in 2008 in which there were as many as 20 people in the backyard.
Salman then decided to construct a 2,000-square-foot building in his backyard and move the gatherings there. He said that he applied for and was granted the appropriate permits for the building.
Hill, however, said that the permits Salman received were for converting his garage into a game room.
Finally, in 2009, a dozen cops raided Salman's home and charged him with 67 code violations for hosting the gatherings.
Since then, the courts have sided with the city, saying that Salman was using the building as a church and, therefore, was subject to city zoning laws.
"He built a structure that he said wasn't a church that is, in fact, a church," Hill told Fox News Radio.
"The state is not saying that the Salmans can't run a church or have worship services at the location," read a Jan. 4, 2010, Arizona court ruling. "But the state is saying that if they do so, they must do it properly and in accord with fire and zoning laws."
Salman doesn't buy the court's argument and has claimed that Phoenix officials are discriminating against him for his religious beliefs.
"If I had people coming to my home on a regular basis for poker night or Monday Night Football, it would be permitted," he told Fox News Radio. "But when someone says to us we are not allowed to gather because of religious purposes – that is when you have discrimination."
Salman's attorney is appealing the ruling and Salman's sentencing, but unless a federal court intervenes, Salman will begin serving his sentence on July 9.
The first Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
Did the city of Phoenix violate Mr. Salman's Constitutional rights by prohibiting his free exercise of his religious beliefs and disallowing him and those within his home the right to peaceably assemble? I would have to say in my opinion the city violated Mr. Salman's rights.
Did Mr. Salman ignore the cities request not to violate building codes and safety codes. In my opinion, by the text of the article, he did not follow the cities ordinances or obey the law. It would appear that he tried to evade the law by use of falsehood in identifying the purpose of the out building he constructed.
As a Christian living in a world that ridicules me for my beliefs, any government intrusion frightens me and does not give me the warm fuzzies for the future. As one who lived withing a few hundred yards away from one of the worst fires in United States history that was determined to be caused by building code violation and killed over 200 souls, I am appalled that anyone would ignore building codes.
When I was a young man during the Jesus Revolution, there were plenty of instances that I found myself cross-legged on the floor, Bible in my lap with 20 to 40 others folks. Was that a good idea? Probably not. Some of the groups I attended grew too large to contain in a house, and alternatives were sought. More often the study was moved to a church hall or some other building that was zoned for that sort of function.
I do not believe the city of Phoenix over-reached the law by requiring Mr. Salman and his Bible study group to not assemble at the Salman residence. This situation should have been avoided by holding the Bible study in a lawful structure.