Skip to comments.Is it Really Persecution? Phoenix Enforcement of Safety and Zoning Ordinances
Posted on 07/14/2012 11:23:21 PM PDT by ReligiousLibertyTV
Cries of religious persecution rose in the Arizona desert after Phoenix pastor Michael Salman began serving a 60 day jail sentence on July 9 and faces a $12,000 fine after refusing to stop holding a Bible study at his home. But like any news story, it is important to get past the headlines making their way across the media and blogosphere and take a look at the facts.
The Bible study, known as the Harvest Christian Fellowship Community Church, is actually held in a building, constructed in 2008, that seats 100 people in what used to be the backyard of the Salman home. In fact, according to the city of Phoenix which has posted a fact sheet on the case, up to 80 people have gathered regularly twice a week in a building that looks a lot more like a church than the garage that Salman said he was building back in 2008.
In 2008, after a battle between the city and Salman, the city ultimately issued a Building Permit to construct a 2,000 square foot private game room and the permit stated that Any other occupancy or use (business, commercial, assembly, church, etc.) is expressly prohibited .
Salman says that his church is private and on his own property and he could hold any events there that he wants. He says the city is persecuting him because he wants to hold Christian services. The city claims that the issue is simply the fact that the building does not meet many construction, zoning, and fire code requirements that any church of that size would need to meet.
The Salman family has posted a 17 minute video showing a tour of the property and making their argument that the church is private and that his congregation is being persecuted because of their religious beliefs.
Following the release of the story, the Christian blogosphere has erupted with all kinds of people calling for his release claiming that he is being persecuted and that no church is safe. On BeliefNet, one blogger even ties President Obama into what is essentially a local issue in what is arguably the most conservative state in the Union. Just remember, today it is Pastor Salman, tomorrow it could be your Pastor, and this could be you the next day! The hostility towards Christians is mounting daily and its mounting exponentially! The longer Obama and his crew of sodomites and Christian-haters are in power, the more evil and bolder they are becoming! If we Christians dont take action now, tomorrow it will be too late.
Is this approach telling the truth or simply fanning the flames of an imaginary incident of persecution in order to make a larger point in order to establish as sense that Christians in America are victims of persecution? We closely track claims of religious persecution and clouding the concept with cases like this makes it harder to address the real cases when they do arise, although those case usually do not end up with pastors facing jail time.
In this case, Salman built a structure that he said was not a church but it was in fact a church and repeatedly violated ignored requests for compliance with zoning requirements and applicable laws. This tactic was less than honest and unfortunately has led to the incarceration of a man who otherwise appears to be a sincere preacher. But when it comes to zoning and safety rules there are legitimate reasons why they exist, and the fact that he is presently in jail has more to do with those neutral rules than persecution regarding his religious viewpoints.
Throughout the United States, there are many cases where religious groups have been wrongfully denied zoning permits for houses of worship or specific uses even where they have followed the rules to the letter. In fact, a Seventh-day Adventist Church in Vacaville, California fought a legal battle for ten years to have a low power radio station.
More recently, a Muslim group wanted to build a house of worship in New York City near the former site of the World Trade Center. Many Christian groups openly rallied against the project simply because it would be a Muslim structure.
In February 2011, Rockdale County, Georgia refused a small church access to several properties for its worship service because the properties are less than three acres. That restriction does not apply to non-religious groups.
Religious zoning cases are governed by a Federal law entitled the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) that provides as follows:
General rule. No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution, unless the government can demonstrate that imposition of the burden on that person, assembly or institution
1. is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and
2. is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.
In this case, the city of Phoenix would argue that they have a compelling interest to provide for the safety of a structure as they would for any other church building, that Salman could have easily found other ways to exercise his religious beliefs since they werent tied to a particular building, and that requiring at minimum that the intended use of a property be honestly identified in an application for a permit. Salman could argue that his right to build a church is above the law, and that he had to misrepresent his intent since the city would have denied the permit if they knew that it would be used as a church rather than a game room. A deceptive approach is very rarely viewed favorably by juries and judges.
Salman has approached the law in unusual ways before. According to an article that appeared in the Phoenix New Times in 2008 Salman filed paperwork in 1994 that he belonged to the Embassy of God and was exempt from United States law. In this case, the law is still the law.
Salman has retained counsel from the Rutherford Institute who plans on advancing the case to Federal Court on the RLUIPA issue and assert the rights to assemble, free speech, and free exercise of religion. But the core issue will be whether religious groups should be given variance from content-neutral local zoning and safety regulations simply because they are religious, and more specifically, the extent to which individuals can ignore neutral laws in the name of religious freedom.
In my opinion, no.
Secular authorities do have the right to set reasonable conditions on how a property is used. Otherwise you could find yourself with a neighbour who likes to hold commercial rock concerts.
I’m personally fine with a neighbour holding personal Bible studies for small groups. However, the moment his small Bible studies have grown sufficient, where traffic and safety do become legitimate concerns, it becomes an issue.
most cases of local govt. being a pain in the arse with zoning resides in business zones. Cities dont’ want business zones being converted into untaxable church owned property and well to do churches usually expand into adjacent properties. Its usually not about a church per se, its the taxes.
In the case of this ‘pastor reverend’ fellow well he is just a regular(perhaps self promoting) manipulating pest to his neighbors and the city commission.
After finding out as much as I can about the situation, it seems that the guy wants to turn his property into a Christian commercial enterprise and make a lot of money, while being able to claim to be a tax-free zone.
I appreciate the posted story, I’ve read about 4 or 5 good analysis on this guy and his story. Had you gotten to me sooner and were more reliable across the board, I wouldnt have to read another news article again in my life.
“The city claims that the issue is simply the fact that the building does not meet many construction, zoning, and fire code requirements that any church of that size would need to meet. “
Yeah, I’ve heard the city’s arguments. Same old government-must-protect-the-idiots BS that has brought us every other freedom-choking regulation. Does the city really believe the people don’t know where the exits are? Come on.
People should be allowed to do what they want with their own property. To hell with zoning laws. These suburbanites are going to live ten feet from their neighbors, in a 2000 people per square mile area, and expect to be free? If a person wants to put on a rock concert next door to you, that’s the price you pay for the convenience of being five minutes from everything. You can’t, and shouldn’t, have it all.
If you don’t like it, move to the country. It’s just not that hard to do.
In the meantime, stop acting like fascists, trying to control everyone around you to make things like YOU think they ought to be.
I’m fine if my neighbor has 100 people over in his yard or home to worship. My issues was with making a building specifically for it and hten tagging it “game room” and the “embassy” crap..
This guy gives an awful witness..
You’re fine with it, that’s great.
But not everybody is fine with their neighbour having an 80 people party twice a week and all the traffic problems that entails.
The guy is obviously trying to be a pain in the ass. I have no tolerance for people are purposefully causing problems. They have an agenda, and they don’t care who they hurt. What he wants is free publicity for his cult. He should be sued into the ground by the township and his neighbors.
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