Among the most inestimable of our blessings is that . . . of liberty to worship our Creator in the way we think most agreeable to His will; a liberty deemed in other countries incompatible with good government and yet proved by our experience to be its best support” (Thomas Jefferson, 1807).
All across the country, in cities, towns, and villages of every size imaginable, Americans take part in a time-honored tradition that goes back centuries—gathering with family and friends at home for prayer and worship. For some, the gatherings are structured and formal, while others adopt a more laid-back approach. Similarly, the site of the meetings varies greatly, from living room to game room to backyard to a space dedicated for that particular purpose, as do the religious beliefs of the participants—Christians, Jews, Muslims, and so on.
Rarely do those taking part in these weekly exercises of religious freedom and assembly consider that they are engaging in a practice that is outlawed in some parts of the world. Yet increasingly, as communities from New York to California adopt strident zoning codes crafted in such a way as to discourage religious gatherings, these religious rituals of fellowship, prayer, and reflection are now being outlawed in America. For example, just last year, Chuck and Stephanie Fromm, of San Juan Capistrano, California, were fined $300 for holding Bible studies in their home, ordered to stop having “a regular gathering of more than three people” in their home, and threatened with a $500 per meeting fine if they continued.
The latest incident to make national headlines involves a Phoenix man—a devout Christian, devoted husband and the father of six children under the age of 11—who was fined more than $12,000 and sentenced to 60 days in jail for the “crime” of holding a weekly Bible study in his Phoenix home, allegedly in violation of the city’s building codes. Yet 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.
Since 2005 Michael Salman and his wife, Suzanne, have hosted Bible studies at their Phoenix home for family and friends. The size of the Bible studies ranges from 20 to 45 people, depending on the day of the week and time. As an ordained minister with a full-time prison ministry, Michael often leads the Bible studies, both the teaching, discussion, and worship. Attendees parked their cars on the Salmans’ 4.6-acre property so as not to crowd the street or inconvenience the neighbors. However, after some neighbors complained about the gatherings, city zoning officials started harassing the Salmans, advising them that they were not permitted to hold Bible studies in their home.
At no time did the city raise any concerns over the number of guests in their home or vehicles in their yard. Rather, their concerns were based solely on the religious nature of the gatherings—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.” Incredibly, these zoning officials actually suggested that because the Salmans’ activities are based purely on “religious worship,” the meetings in their home constituted a church and had to be governed by building codes for churches, rather than residential homes. Of course, these same zoning officials had no problem with group gatherings for family reunions, football parties, Tupperware parties, or Boy Scout meetings.
Determined to continue practicing their Christian faith, the Salmans did everything to try to reasonably accommodate the city’s demands, even going so far as building a 2,000-square-foot game room in their backyard, large enough to hold approximately 40 people, which they proceeded to use for their weekly Bible studies.
City officials still refused to back down. In June 2009 nearly a dozen armed police officers, accompanied by city inspectors, raided the Salmans’ property, searching for possible “zoning” violations. Having determined that the Salmans’ weekly Bible studies constituted a church because of the religious nature of their activities, city officials subsequently charged Salman with being in violation of various code regulations that apply to commercial and public buildings, including having no emergency exit signs over the doors, no handicap parking spaces, and no handicap ramps. Salman was later found guilty of 67 code violations.
For more than three years the Salmans attempted to placate city officials, even agreeing to install overhead sprinklers in their converted game room, but when zoning officials started insisting that the Salmans actually install paved roads and curbs on their private property, they said, “No more.” That’s when city officials really turned up the heat, sentencing Michael Salman to 60 days in jail, more than $12,000 in fines, and a two-year probation. City officials also indicated their desire to extend Michael’s jail time on the grounds that he violated his probation by continuing to hold Bible studies on his private property after being ordered not to have more than 12 people gathered on his property at any one time.
Suddenly every detail of the Salmans’ lives was being viewed suspiciously by government officials, with an eye toward persuading the public that what was really taking place at 7601 North 31st Avenue was an illegal church. After all, here was a family that held private weekly gatherings at their home (these were not open to the public) at which their relatives and friends prayed, studied the Bible, sang hymns, collected tithes, and distributed pamphlets. There was even a Bible board—a sign in their front yard on which they displayed Bible verses. What’s more, the Salmans had also applied for and been granted an exemption from property taxes for their property.
To their credit, the Salmans had legitimate explanations for every charge brought against them, including the fact that under Arizona law the home of an ordained minister qualifies for a tax exemption as a “parsonage”—not as a church. The tithes, none of which went to the Salmans, were donated to needy charities and ministries. Just as the simple act of purchasing products at a Tupperware party does not transform a home into a retail store, the simple act of tithing does not transform the Bible study gathering into a church. The pamphlets, no different from the flyers and newsletters other people pass out in their homes for Avon, Pampered Chef, Amway, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, and the like, allowed those attending the Bible studies to take notes and provided them with a list of upcoming events related to “doing the work of Christ.” As for the Bible board, for which they got a residential permit, the Salmans started posting Bible quotations on it after learning through a traffic study that approximately 2,500 cars pass in front of their house each day (they live across from a big park). They thought it was a great way to witness.
There was a time in our nation’s history when such an accounting of facts would not have caused the slightest ripple of alarm or surprise. Yet times have changed, and so too has America’s tolerance for religious freedom. Whereas there once was a time that churches could be found around almost every corner, in recent years increasing numbers of communities have used zoning codes as a way to keep churches, synagogues, and mosques at a distance, especially from residential neighborhoods.
For example, a similar incident occurred in Teaneck, New Jersey, when several residents of the township asked government officials to look into the activities of a rabbi who was accused of violating zoning codes by holding prayer meetings in the family room of his home. The Village of Hempstead, New York, in an effort to discourage what it referred to as “illegal synagogues,” even went so far as to create zoning laws that would make it nearly impossible for Orthodox Jews to practice their faith in their homes.
For those who still cling to the belief that they have a First Amendment right not only to freely assemble but also to freely exercise their religious beliefs, Michael Salman’s case is a warning that America may no longer be the beacon for religious freedom it once was.
On July 9, 2012, Michael began serving his jail sentence in Maricopa County’s Tents City Jail. Built in 1993 supposedly as a response to jail overcrowding, the Tents City Jail houses inmates outdoors in military tents with four Sky Watch Towers for security, stun fences around the perimeter, facial recognition computer software for inmate identification, and K-9 units and patrol deputies for additional security. Michael Salman was incarcerated in this Guantanamo-like facility, surrounded by hardened criminals and subjected to all manners of degradation and hardship, including being made to sleep outdoors in the grueling Arizona heat, with only a fan and a tent to protect him from the elements.
While Michael served his 60-day sentence in jail, using his time to lead Bible studies with the inmates, Suzanne attempted to hold the family and the family business together, struggling daily to comfort their children and deal with her own grief over the separation. The children, unable to see their father except for a brief moment in the courtroom, have experienced random fits of crying. As Suzanne shared, “I took the girls with me to court since they aren’t able to see their dad in person at the jail. They were excited to see him, but I knew they were going to have a hard time seeing him the way he was going to be in the courtroom. I warned them that they wouldn’t be able to talk to him or touch him, but they could see him. He was escorted into the courtroom by a police officer, and he was in stripes, with shackles on his feet, and his hands were cuffed to a belt they had placed around his waist. This was the hardest part of the day for the girls. He mouthed the words ‘I love you and miss you’ to me with tears in his eyes and then mouthed to each of the girls that he loved them, too. It was a few sweet minutes in a chaotic day.”
In coming to Salman’s defense, Rutherford Institute attorneys are challenging the legality of Salman’s imprisonment as a violation of his First Amendment rights to religious freedom and assembly, in addition to challenging the city’s assertion that if a person holds Bible studies or other forms of religious worship at their residence, they are required to comply with all local laws relating to an actual church that is open to the public. Institute attorneys point out that 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 Cub Scout meeting, or Monday Night Football parties. Yet according to the city’s logic, because the Salmans’ gatherings are religious, they convert the property to a formal “church,” and trigger commercial building codes.
Of course, 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 whom you see in the privacy of your home. The potential implications for homeowners nationwide are serious and many, especially if other communities adopt restrictive zoning ordinances such as those used in Phoenix, which were drafted by the International Code Council (ICC). Located in Washington, D.C., the ICC promulgates similarly restrictive zoning ordinances for cities and towns across the country. For instance, if cities begin applying commercial building codes to residential property, then homeschooling families could be treated as using their property for educational uses; dinner parties and gatherings for such “social functions” as playing games or watching movies could be seen as public gatherings requiring regulation. Each of these “uses” would require the home to conform to rigorous construction code requirements, including the installation of sprinkler systems, handicap-accessible restrooms and parking spaces, exit signs, etc.
For many years now we have witnessed those hostile to religion attempt to eradicate religious speech, practices, and gatherings from the public sphere, relegating any mention of God or worship to the privacy of one’s home or church. This latest salvo against the Salman family takes intolerance for religion to new extremes and shows how vulnerable home and church may be.
Author: John W. Whitehead
John W. Whitehead, founder and president of the Rutherford Foundation, writes from Charlottesville, Virginia.