Phoenix Pastor Michael Salman is feeling a little less heat. He’s still in jail for holding Bible studies at his Arizona home, but he’s been moved inside from the 140-degree heat of Maricopa County Jail’s famed “Tent City.”
“Pastor Michael has been moved indoors,” his attorney, John Whitehead, told Beliefnet.
Like the Apostle Paul some 2,000 years ago, Salman has devoted his time in custody to sharing his faith with other inmates. As he faced the final 30 days, his church prayed for a miracle to shake open the prison doors -- as in the Book of Acts’ Bible story of the Philippian jailer. However, Salman’s jailer is already a Christian – famed Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is staying out of the controversy that landed Salman behind bars.
The Arizona preacher ran afoul of Phoenix city officials, who Whitehead accuses of over-zealous enforcement of zoning ordinances. The real culprits, says Whitehead, is the Washington, D.C.-based International Code Council, which provides city councils nationwide with standardized zoning rules, which Whitehead says are heavily biased against any practice of religion outside of church sanctuaries.
Salman says rules-quoting bureaucrats are denying him, his wife and his six small children the right to invite their friends and family to talk about Jesus at their home.
Officials say he violated a previous agreement by continuing to hold religious services in violation of zoning and building codes – hosting as many as 80 visitors at his 4-acre property in a 2,000-square-foot “game room” that has a pulpit and pews and for which he has enjoyed a church exemption from property taxes.
One of Salman’s Bible studies
Phoenix zoning officials say the case has nothing at all to do with Salman’s faith, but everything to do with zoning ordinances, occupancy permits and insufficient handicapped parking spaces.
Whitehead says the case has everything to do with local city councils not paying enough attention to standardized, but highly restrictive regulations. Local council members, who are often volunteers, he notes, don’t have time to read reams of new rules, but trustingly adopt the regulations – unaware when rights are trampled. Whitehead cites recent cases in which a church handing out bottled water was warned that they would have to get a vender’s license first -- although the water was being handed out free. In another case, a church was told to shut down covered-dish dinners in its fellowship hall until it hired certified food handlers.
Salman’s case has attracted international attention. “A Phoenix man has been sentenced to two months in jail, three years’ probation and more than $12,000 in fines for using his private home to host weekly Bible studies in violation of the city’s building codes,” reported Snejana Farberov for the British tabloid the Daily Mail.
“An American pastor remained jailed in ‘prison camp-like conditions,’” reported the International Christian Herald, “for holding an unauthorized Bible study meeting at his home in the U.S. state of Arizona amid concerns about a possible ‘North Korean-style’ crackdown in the country.”
“Attorney Says Pastor’s Arrest May be First of Many,” warns a headline from the ordinarily soft-spoken human rights group International Christian Concern – which is also concerned about
standardized rules that it says local U.S. city councils are adopting without consideration of human rights.
The Maricopa County Jail’s “Tent City”
“The arrest of Pastor Salman and his subsequent detention in a military-like compound for holding Bible studies in his home,” said ICC’s Regional Manager, Ryan Morgan, “would not be much of a surprise if it had taken place in an authoritarian police state.” Morgan echoed Whitehead’s concerns that “the same zoning laws used in Arizona to imprison Michael Salman for holding home Bible studies” are spreading nationwide.
Whitehead said those writing the standardized rules seem inordinately concerned about controlling religious groups.
“If you have a small gathering in your home for any kind of religious meeting, you’re going to be harassed by the government to somehow square with the zoning regulations for a formal institution,” he says. “We’re getting people who now are getting phone calls from zoning agents because they have five or six people meeting in their home.”
Salman’s case, says Morgan, “should be a resounding wake-up call to every American who holds the right to worship freely close to their heart. Around the world, governments are using all sorts of laws to control and suppress religious gatherings. We cannot stand idly by as the United States does the same.”
“They’re cracking down on religious activities and religious use,” Salman told Maegan Vazquez for Fox News before his arrest. “They’re attacking what I as a Christian do in the privacy of my home.”
Salman is unapologetic, says Whitehead. “I’m sure he’d do it all over again.” In fact, he is already doing it again – but this time while in jail, observes Vazquez. “Salman has assembled a Bible study group on site that has been attended by as many as 30 inmates.”
Although Arpaio has stayed out of the controversy, deputies selected Salman to lead inmates in prayer for the anniversary of the county’s rustic Tent City jail, “just before they dined on moon pies,” according to a news release from the sheriff’s office.
Is Salman guilty? The defiant preacher says “the only people who came to our home were family and friends,” in a video posted online before he reported to jail. “Our home was not open to the public; it was private.”
The Salman family
“Christians deserve the right to gather at their homes privately just like every other American has the right to gather for their reasons,” his wife, Suzanne, told FoxNews.
In 2007, the Salmans first tangled with Phoenix city authorities after a neighbor complained they were holding “religious meetings” at their home. They were informed that their Bible study and worship could only be held in a building that conformed to Phoenix commercial code requirements. Salman says he made changes to the house to comply with requirements as best as he could, but then the city changed the code.
That was the beginning of what has since become an ongoing battle between Salman and the city of Phoenix. According to code enforcement officials, if Salman holds “worship gatherings” on his private five-acre property, 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 are my wife and me 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 Salman home
Phoenix claims, however, that Salman has been cited in violation of 67 code regulations on his property. The city in 2010 filed criminal charges against Salman. He lost, but attempted to appeal his case. The upper court 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, dismissed the case, stating Salman could not file until the state court’s review was complete. Salman 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 to begin serving a sentence of 60 days to be followed by probation. He was also fined $12,180.
Whitehead says a serious problem is that once a citizen runs afoul of bureaucrats
dedicatedly enforcing the law, he or she often is subjected to continuing scrutiny – much the way that police keep tabs on known criminals. “Once you’re in the system,” said Whitehead, “it’s hard to get out.”
Suzanne and Michael Salman
When Salman was taken into custody, assistant city prosecutor John Tutelman, who has publicly characterized Salman as a “rebel,” asked the court to revoke his probation and convert it into a two-and-a-half-year jail sentence -- since he had continued to hold worship gatherings on his property despite court orders.
Are such cases going to continue to pop up nationwide? Yes, says Whitehead. Indeed, Chuck and Stephanie Fromm in San Juan Capistrano, California, experienced a similar situation last year when bureaucrats cited 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. The Fromms 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.
“What happened to Michael Salman — armed police raids of his property, repeated warnings against holding any form of Bible study at his home, and a court-ordered probation banning him from having any gatherings of more than 12 people at his home — should never have happened in America,” says Rutherford. “Yet this is the reality that more and more Americans are grappling with in the face of a government bureaucracy consumed with churning out laws, statutes, codes and regulations that reinforce its powers.”
“Incredibly,” Whitehead writes on the Rutherford Institute website, “Congress has been creating on average 55 new “crimes” per year, bringing the total number of federal crimes on the books to more than 5,000, with as many as 300,000 regulatory crimes.
Whitehead continues: “As journalist Radley Balko reports, ‘that doesn’t include federal regulations, which are increasingly being enforced with criminal, not administrative, penalties. It also doesn’t include the increasing leeway with which prosecutors can enforce broadly written federal conspiracy, racketeering, and money laundering laws. And this is before we even get to the states’ criminal codes.’"
“In such a society, we are all petty criminals,” wrote Rutherford recently in the Huffington Post, “guilty of violating some minor law. In fact, Boston lawyer Harvey Silvergate, author of Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent, estimates that the average American now unknowingly commits three felonies a day, thanks to an overabundance of vague laws that render otherwise innocent activity illegal.
“Consequently, we now find ourselves operating in a strange new world where small farmers who dare to make unpasteurized goat cheese and share it with members of their community are finding their farms raided, while home gardeners face jail time for daring to cultivate their own varieties of orchids without having completed sufficient paperwork.”
The Rutherford Foundation’s John Whitehead
“This frightening state of affairs — where a person can actually be arrested and incarcerated for the most innocent and inane activities, including feeding a whale and collecting rainwater on their own property (these are actual cases in the courts right now) — is due to what law scholars refer to as overcriminalization, or the overt proliferation of criminal laws,” writes Whitehead on his website.
“Such laws," notes journalist George Will, "which enable government zealots to accuse almost anyone of committing three felonies in a day, do not just enable government misconduct, they incite prosecutors to intimidate decent people who never had culpable intentions. And to inflict punishments without crimes."
“Michael Salman is merely one more unfortunate soul caught in the government’s crosshairs,” says Whitehead, “only his so-called crime deserving of prosecution was daring to take part in a time-honored tradition that goes back centuries — gathering with family and friends at home for prayer and worship.
“Yet,” continues Whitehead, “as communities from New York to California adopt strident zoning codes crafted in such a way as to keep churches, synagogues and mosques at a distance, especially from residential neighborhoods, and discourage religious gatherings, these religious rituals are now being outlawed in America.
“For example, in an effort to discourage what it referred to as ‘illegal synagogues,’ the Village of Hempstead, N.Y., went so far as to create zoning laws that would make it nearly impossible for Orthodox Jews to hold prayer meetings in their homes.
“However, having bought into the idea that anything the government says and does is right, even when it is so clearly wrong, many Americans through their own compliance have become unwitting accomplices in the government’s efforts to prosecute otherwise law-abiding citizens for unknowingly violating some statute in its vast trove of laws written by bureaucrats who operate above the law.
“There was a time in our nation’s history," muses Whitehead, "when such an accounting of facts would have sparked immediate outrage."