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A legal team that raised objections to a 60-day jail sentence for a Phoenix Bible-study leader who held meetings on his own property now is seeking a court order that would allow him out on work release.
The Rutherford Institute says it has asked a municipal court to allow Michael Salman conditional work release that would allow him to leave the jail as needed to manage and serve at his family-owned restaurant, a job his wife cannot perform while she cares for their young children.
“What happened to Michael Salman and his family – 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,” said John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute.
“If you follow the city of Phoenix’s assertions to their logical, chilling conclusion, what’s really being said is that there is no such thing as private property anymore – not if the government can dictate what you do, when you do it and who you see in the privacy of your own home,” he said.
Salman is in the middle of a 60-day sentence for allegedly violating the zoning ordinances by using his residential property to hold a weekly Bible study.
Institute attorneys have been arguing that city officials are erroneously applying commercial building codes to Salman’s property because he is holding Bible studies, while not applying those same codes to others who gather in their homes for football parties, poker clubs, book club meetings and the like.
The Rutherford Institute has released a fact sheet on the case, because of the many reports that have characterized the case.
WND reported earlier when the state Supreme Court refused to intervene in the case when Rutherford attorneys filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus.
Salman was ordered to be fined some $12,000 for using his private residential property to hold a weekly Bible study. The city said his offenses involved city building codes, but his defenders have pointed out that those codes are for commercial properties.
Salman’s defenders are challenging city claims that if a person holds Bible studies or other forms of religious worship at his residence, he is required to comply with all local laws relating to an actual church that is open to the public.
Since 2005, Salman and his wife Suzanne have held Bible studies for friends and family. But neighbors complained, and in 2007 city officials told the Salmans to stop holding the Bible studies.
The couple then built a 2,000-square-foot building on their property, with city permits, holding up to about 40 people for the weekly Bible study.
In 2009, nearly a dozen police officers, accompanied by city inspectors, raided the Salmans’ property. The city decided to call the weekly study a church and blasted the couple for not meeting commercial building codes requiring emergency exit signs, handicapped parking spaces and such.
But the Rutherford Institute, in challenging the city’s case, alleges the real motive was revealed when the city told the couple, “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.”
The Institute argues “that Salmans’ religious gatherings should have been treated as accessory uses under the regulations governing residential property. However, city officials claim that they can treat the Bible studies differently than family reunions, football parties or Boy Scout meetings solely because they are ‘religious worship,'” the group said.
City code officials in Phoenix did not respond to a WND request for comment, and officials in the city prosecutor’s office declined to respond to a message requesting a comment.
Salman had 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 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.