Update on Michael Salman’s Church

So, I failed at Googling this morning. There’s actually tons of info on this case and it’s not even a little like what was portrayed. (I know, Fox News. There’s a big surprise. I’m going to have a heart attack and die from “not surprised.”)

From the Phoenix City website (via The Christian Post):

Mr. Salman had regular gatherings of up to 80 people. He held services twice a week and collected a tithe at the services. The building that he held services in had a dais and chairs were aligned in a pew formation. He held himself out as a being a church through the media (Harvest Christian Church) and claimed a church status for tax exemption purposes on his property.

Due to the regular, reoccurring high vehicular traffic in this quiet residential neighborhood, neighbors repeatedly complained about the public assembly occurring on his property. Because of the multiple, reoccurring complaints, the City investigated the activity and discovered numerous building code violations primarily related to fire safety standards. Once apprised of these violations, the City could be held liable for not enforcing safety code requirements in the event anyone was injured on the premises. Prior to commencement of prosecution, Mr. Salman was asked, repeatedly, to comply with the safety codes of the City. He chose to ignore these requests for voluntary compliance prior to the commencement of any proceedings.

It’s also stated that he initially built without a proper permit and was cited for that way back in 2007. Also, houses of worship are allowed in any part of Phoenix, so he could at any time have complied with the building codes and had his church with no problems.

So, he built a church without a permit initially, lied his head off about the purpose of the building, ignored the heck out of zoning rules, and when he was finally arrested, cried religious persecution. Nice.

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Another Freedom of Religion Post

Christians are a majority in the US. I, personally, have privilege in that I’m part of *the* mainstream religion in the country where I live. Our holidays are observed, our beliefs are not just treated as normal (where other religions are treated as weird or even suspect) but are privileged.

And yet, like pretty much every evangelical ever, I grew up feeling that I was persecuted for my faith. Partly it was because the expectation existed that Christians *would* be persecuted, and there’s a strong tendency in Christianity to think that if people are rude or unkind, it’s proof that you’re speaking God’s truth. Partly it was because I was bullied for other reasons, and it’s really hard to see yourself as a cultural insider when you’re the chick that guys ask out as a joke.

But I think a huge part of it is that my concepts of “fair” and “normal” were based on my own experiences. Which is kind of how privilege works. Advantages that you’ve always had seem perfectly normal, so losing them even momentarily seems horribly unfair. For example, when I was in college, I was shocked that Good Friday wasn’t a school holiday. All through elementary and high school (public school in rural PA), I’d always had an Easter vacation, usually with at least Friday and Monday off. So a lack of an Easter break was a shock to me. The college did, if I recall correctly, have a policy for religious absences. If you had a religious observance and let the professor know ahead of time, it didn’t count against your allotted number of absences.

So, my religious observances were treated perfectly *fairly* and *equally* with everyone else’s religious observances (and still privileged in that the break between semesters gives you Christmas off, even if it’s called a winter break instead of a Christmas break). But it was less preferential than I was used to, so it felt unfair.

That seems to me very similar to a situation I read about today, where a man was sentenced to 60 days in jail for numerous zoning and code violations related to a church on his property. Yes, I know, it’s Faux News. If I could find a reputable source, I’d cite it. They seem to be the only ones covering it, probably because it lines up conveniently with their slant (at least the way they tell it).

The gist of the situation is this. The city council determined that the 2000-square-foot building (a converted garage) in which he holds weekly Bible studies, is a church. On the building permits, it was called a gaming room. (Incidentally, this gaming room is almost twice the size of my house, which is actually quite a nice size for two people.) As a church, it violates the zoning rules for the area. It also doesn’t meet public accessibility standards, such as clearly marked exits and wheelchair ramps. The article frequently uses the phrase “in the privacy of his own home,” which creates the impression of police raiding a Bible study in this guy’s living room, not of a whole separate building used for a purpose other than what was approved.

The story is unclear as to whether he got his building permit under false pretenses or whether the purpose of the building just changed. It’s mentioned that the Bible study outgrew the living room, but not when that happened or whether the garage was converted specifically to house the Bible study.

He believes he’s being persecuted for his religious beliefs, and someone on a local forum (local to me, not to the incident) said “that wouldn’t happen with non-Christian religions.” (Park 51 apparently doesn’t ring a bell with them.)

To me, what’s actually happening is that he’s being expected to follow a set of rules and is upset that a special exception isn’t made because it’s a religious activity or because it occurs on his private property. It seems to me like there’s an assumption that “religious” means “exempt from rules” when it applies to Christianity. (I kind of doubt a member of any minority religion would expect to get away with running a house of worship in flagrant violation of sixty different zoning laws.)

I don’t know if the rules he’s being held to are fair or not, because I don’t know what all criteria were used to define his gathering as a church. To me, it would make sense to call it a church if it was open to the public or publicly advertised, or if an offering was taken. If it was by invitation, even in a very loose “bring your friends, tell your family, the more the merrier” sense, then it’s not a church. In the same way that I’m not necessarily running a restaurant if I have 47 people over to my house for dinner on a weekly basis. On the other hand, if I start charging, put a big sign out front, or take out an ad in the local paper, then it stops being a dinner party gone wild and starts being a public accommodation and a business.

He made the comment:

““If I had people coming to my home on a regular basis for poker night or Monday Night Football, it would be permitted. But when someone says to us we are not allowed to gather because of religious purposes – that is when you have discrimination.

Maybe, maybe not. The prosecutor said “Any other occupancy or use – business, commercial, assembly, church, etc. is expressly prohibited.” There’s no indication that it’s the religious nature of the activity that makes it a problem. (Though I’m curious what counts as “assembly.”)

I think the standard of “If I did X secular thing, it would be allowed, so I’m being discriminated against,” only works if “X secular thing” is actually similar to the religious activity.

I definitely think that if you get a building permit on false pretenses, said permit should be revoked.
Also, if this was open to the public, it falls under ADA rules anyway, so it makes sense for it to fall under local zoning rules too. Once you make something open to the public, you pretty much lose the “privacy of his own home” defense. Churches, after all, should be just as subject to public access and zoning rules as businesses and schools. People in wheelchairs have as much right to go to church as they do to go to the bank or the dentist.

On the other hand, two months in jail and a twelve-thousand-dollar fine seems incredibly steep for zoning violations, even sixty of them.