The Phoenix, Ariz., fight over a Bible study in a man’s home has spilled over into the state Supreme Court, with a writ of habeas corpus filed by Rutherford Institute asking the justices to intervene and release Michael Salman, who was jailed after repeatedly holding Bible studies at his home.
City officials have argued that he’s violating the zoning code for churches, but he’s argued that his Bible study is for friends and family and he shouldn’t be forced to meet any city code that would not also be applied to a meeting of friends for a card game, a Super Bowl party or any other event.
In the city’s court system, Salman was fined $12,000 and sentenced to 60 days in jail for the zoning and code violations, and Rutherford officials confirm Salman now is in Maricopa County’s “Tents Jail,” made up of military tents on the desert with four towers for security, stun fences around the perimeter and other security features.
“Petition seeks a writ of habeas corpus because he is currently serving a sentence of imprisonment as a result of exercising his right to religious freedom under the First and Fourteenth Amendments,” the writ explains.
City code officials in Phoenix would not respond to WND questions about the issue, and officials in the city prosecutor’s office declined to respond to a message requesting a comment.
But documentation assembled by Rutherford in the case explains that the city has tried to subject the Salman family “to the zoning and building requirements that are meant only to apply to public or commercial buildings, even though the Bible studies were intended only for family and friends.”
The organization cites numerous letters from the city ordering the family not to hold Bible studies in their home, including, “Bible studies are not allowed to be conducted in your residence or the barn on your property as these structures do not comply with the construction code for this use.”
Another letter from the city said, “Councilman Mattox has brought your request to our attention regarding conducting Bible studies at your residence … Until the appropriate permits and approvals have been obtained, church related activities, including Bible studies, are not allowed.”
“The restriction is based solely on the religious purpose of the gatherings,” the Rutherford analysis said. “This represents a clear violation of citizens’ fundamental right to freely exercise their religion, which is protected by the First Amendment and considered to be Americans’ ‘first freedom.’”
The writ, filed by Jack Douglas Wilenchik on behalf of the institute, said, “petitioner’s conviction and incarceration on the basis of his private religious exercise represents a grave injustice of the most serious nature.”
The family began holding Bible studies for their friends and family (not open to the general public) in 2005. Two years later some neighbors complained, and the city ordered the family to stop holding the private religious study gatherings.
The family then built a new structure with city permission and officials demanded an assurance it would not “be used for a public place of worship.”
But after it was completed, the city searched property and said was a commercial church.
Salman raised the issue in his interactions with city officials in court. “The state is stating … that this is an A3 Occupancy because it is a religious use. They’re basing the occupant load on use and square footage. So, my question to them is – and where I’m – where this is all going is, if this can be used as a home theater without being – without having to have an A3 Occupancy, why could this not be used as a religious use without having an A3 Occupancy?”
He got no answer.
The filing claims violations of the First Amendment, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the Arizona Free Exercise of Religion Act and other laws.
“Petitioner is incarcerated as a result of his engaging in worship with friends and family on his private property. It is indisputable that the city’s enforcement of its code and ordinances against him in this manner constitutes a substantial burden on his religious exercise…” the filing states. “The city has come nowhere near making the required showing to demonstrate that its actions toward petitioner constitute the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest.”
The filing explains the city “demands that petitioner conform his home to the same requirements imposed upon a commercial entity or a building open to the general public.”
“While Michael Salman should never have been charged with a crime for simply exercising his religious beliefs on his own property, to keep him in prison while the question of his basic rights is being considered is the ultimate injustice,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “The continued imprisonment of Michael Salman for simply worshiping God with his family and friends on his own property demonstrates the lengths to which government bureaucrats will go in service of imposing dubious regulations on average citizens.”
Among the dozens of individual charges the city brought against Salman was that he didn’t have emergency exit signs over the doors of his home, and no handicap parking spaces or handicap ramps.
“City officials claim that they can treat the Bible studies differently than family reunions, football parties or Boy Scouts solely because they are ‘religious worship,’” the institute said.
“The Salmans should have to comply with applicable laws, and they are willing to do so. But the city is applying the wrong set of laws to the Salmans, based purely on the fact that their activities are religious in nature. The city would never require a family’s residence to comply with commercial building codes just because the family hosted a weekly poker night for guests, a regular Cut Scout meeting, or Monday night football parites. Yet the city argues that because the Salmans’ gatherings are religious, they convert the property to a formal ‘church,’ and trigger commercial building codes.”
The Rutherford Institute warned if such a precedent stands the city could require that the homes of homeschooling families, those who have dinner parties, or those who watch movies with friends to have sprinkler systems, handicap-accessible restrooms, exit signs and parking spaces.
“If families may not gather with fellow believers on their own property to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences, then religious freedom in its most basic sense is dead,” Rutherford noted.