Man Facing Jail For Hosting Home Bible Study

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JD Miller's picture

I agree with Jim that this looks like a zoning issue.  I was bothered that they were being harassed for having 20 people in their 4 acre backyard, but as you read farther you find out that there is more to the story.  Now I am not a big fan of all the govt regs but it seems that a lot of so called persecution could be resolved with just a little cooperation.  1 Timothy 3:7 says, "Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil."  I am saddened when Christians have little concern for the report of those without and even try to antigonize them- I'm not saying that is what is happening in that sitution (there is a lot we do not know), I am simply reminding us to try to work with the authorities when at all possible so we might live peaceably.
 

JobK's picture

Yes, it is a zoning issue. But in imperial Rome in the time of the early church, the entire religion was improperly zoned, just as it is in Saudi Arabia, Iran and in many instances China today.

Zoning laws have always existed. The issue is that in times past, no one would have ever dreamed of throwing a pastor in jail over his Bible study meetings. No law is absolute, and enforcement of laws aren't absolute either. Evidence: our immigration laws. This case is from Arizona, remember? 

If it were Barack Obama and Eric Holder using hate crimes laws to throw them in jail because of their preaching against homosexuality and abortion, folks would be all up in arms. But because it is regular Arizona folks instead of the "big government elites" talking about zoning laws and property values, that makes it ok? Pardon me, but what makes zoning laws any different from hate crimes laws? It is the same government that enacts both and enforces both in a manner that acts against the ability of Christians to hold services. I say that a zoning law that prevents Christian assembly is just as illegitimate as a hate crimes law that makes it illegal to preach against homosexuality. The only difference is that the religious right has chosen to make an issue out of the latter and not the former. That is why no one goes around quoting 1 Timothy 3:7 when it comes to hate crimes laws, taking prayer out of schools, homosexual "marriage", abortion or ObamaCare (which lest we forget was enacted by a legitimately elected Democratic majority and has now been upheld by the Supreme Court, making ObamaCare just as legitimate according to 1 Timothy 3:7 as zoning laws). 

And why don't we talk about these hate crimes laws, and the general civil rights law area that they fall under. What happens when/if the day comes that churches who teach that homosexuality is sin and that faith in Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven are denied tax-exempt status? I will tell you: in many cases Christians will no longer be able to pay the mortgages and taxes on our church buildings. In many cases, the house churches will be all that is left. And the way to get rid of them? For homosexual activists, ACLU types and other liberals to stack the boards that create and enforce zoning laws. That way, they will be able to shut down the fundamentalist and conservative evangelical churches while still allowing the 2nd amendment to protect the synagogues, mosques, Hindu temples, Wiccan covens, and of course Roman Catholic and liberal churches. 

"Now I am not a big fan of all the govt regs but it seems that a lot of so called persecution could be resolved with just a little cooperation." Yeah. Tell that to the early church. They should have either cooperated with the lions, or the pagans that fed them to the lions because the pagans were convinced that Christians were a bunch of uneducated, bigoted fanatics that were ruining their country. 

We really have to start challenging and abandoning the notion that this is essentially a good, decent culture where people aspire to do the right thing towards their fellow man and a healthy respect for Christianity still exists even among the unchurched. That might have been true in another time, but that is not the time that we are living in, and certainly isn't the time that we and our children are going to face.

Solo Christo, Soli Deo Gloria, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Sola Scriptura
http://healtheland.wordpress.com

Chip Van Emmerik's picture

It's not about zoning laws at all. If you want to have friends over for poker night every week (regardless of how many as long as the parking and noise were not a problem), you would not have an issue. There is only a problem here because the government has declared them a church (even though they are not officially constituted and deny being a church) and therefore apply commercial codes to the meetings. It's ridiculous and abusive.

Why is it that my voice always seems to be loudest when I am saying the dumbest things?

Jim's picture

Re: "Government out of control"

 

If there were no or a limited # of churches in Phoenix I would agree. That this is not the fact disproves it

 

 

Larry's picture

Moderator

This is actually pretty easy: There is nothing in the Bible that requires the church to meet at this place without following the local building codes. Therefore, there is no biblical cause for civil disobedience. This group of people can meet elsewhere, and in fact, they could apparently meet here if they get the building up to code. Christians are not above the law unless the law requires them to disobey God (which is why Job's point is misguided ... Preaching against homosexuality or abortion is entirely different than zoning laws).

 

Here's a place where this man can "silence the ignorance of foolish men" by "submitting themselves for the Lord's sake to every human institution." It is, after all, the "will of God" to do such (1 Peter 2:13-14).

JD Miller's picture

I do not agree witht he zoning regs in this case and I would like to see them changed.  Further, I have no problem with following up to see if the zoning laws are even being enforced properly or if someone is just trying to harass these folks.   Further I would encourage citizen involvement to try to get these regulations changed. 

The point I am making is that "if" we are able to get along with the authorities we should make dilligent effort to do so.  I pastor in a small town where there are very few regulations, but I still stop down to city hall and check with them and keep them in the loop about what we are doing.  This has led to a great relationship and they are an asset to us.  I realize that is not the case in all areas (we are really blessed) but you catch a lot more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.  Many missionaries have learned that the only way to find a meeting place is to establish a relationship with the authorities.  Others are ministering in secret in closed countries.  If it were illegal to assemble would I disobey Heb 10:25?  No, we ought to obey God rather than man, but if possible I want to obey the laws of the land Romans 13:1-7.

Further, from a strictly political point, I believe that these regulations are an infringement on the First Amendment, and that makes me mad!  But from a Christian standpoint, I must step back and ask, what is more important, making a political statement or having a good testimony in the community?  That is part of the reason that I became a pastor instead of a politician (seriously).  I could very easily let myself get carried away by political debates and have on many occasions, but I realize that in the vast expanse of history, the spiritual impacts we have will be much more important than the political ones.

Jay's picture

could save himself a LOT of hassle by simply bringing his building up to code instead of fighting with the city over the definition of whether or not it's a church.  I mean, if it's more important to be considered as not a church than it is to get enmeshed in litigation aginst the city, isn't that a foolish and unwise decision?

Look at the description of the building and the violations.  Some of them are pretty serious:

On June 11, 2009, the Phoenix Police Dept. showed up with a search warrant. When they had completed the search, Salman was charged with 67 code violations.

He was charged with not having emergency exit signs over the doors. He was charged with not having handicap parking spaces and not having handicap ramps.

“Imagine everything that a public building would have or a commercial building would have,” he said. “Anything we didn’t have was a violation.”

The largest source of contention has been whether or not Salman is running a church. He insists it is not.

But his building certainly resembles a church. It has chairs for as many as 40 people. There is a pulpit. There’s a sign out front – along with a cross.

“Just because visitors come to my home three times a week and we discuss the Bible – if that’s their definition of a church then so be it,” he said.

...Hill said the facts are clear.  “He built a structure that he said wasn’t a church — that is in fact — a church,” she said. “It’s a church.”

And the courts agreed — noting in a Jan. 4, 2010 ruling: “The state is not saying the Salmans can’t run a church or have worship services at the location. But the state is saying that if they do so, they must do it properly and in accord with fire and zoning codes.”

Salman’s attorney has filed an appeal with the federal court – and unless they intervene – Salman will start serving his sentence on July 9.

It seems to me that Mr. Salman's attitudes and behavior have disqualified him (temporarily) for ministry anyway.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Chip Van Emmerik's picture

Jay (and others),

I still totally disagree. The government has established legal definitions of a church. Until this "church" constitutes itself as such, the state has no right to simply declare it such. He has met the building codes for the current use of the building. He is only in violation of the commercial codes being applied to his building now that the state has declared  him a church. Why don't the boy/girl scouts who meet weekly in someone's home down the street have to follow commercial codes? They have regular meetings where cars fill the lot and people fill the home. Where are the exit signs, handicapped entrance ramps, ADA bathrooms and other such commercial requirements? 

Why is it that my voice always seems to be loudest when I am saying the dumbest things?

JD Miller's picture

Chip, I am not disagreeing that this is an abuse of state power.  The point I am making is that I do not believe that making a political statement necessarily helps the gospel to go forward.  I believe it can hinder it.  You are welcome to disagree, but I believer our Christian testimony in our community is more important than challenging an out of control government.  

Does that mean that I never address political issues?  Actually I do quite often, but I try to be careful not to let the politics distract from the gospel.  I fear that I have not always done the best at that and I can see how easy it would be for me to react like Mr. Salman has, but I keep reminding myself to be careful not to let my political statements come in such a way that it hinders the gospel. 

 There is another thread farther down where an a guy is trying to get a restaurant to stop giving a discount to people who bring in church bulletins.   The state has sided with him and that is a huge mistake on their part, but the guy raising the stink is giving a bad name to atheist, not to Christians.  Just reading the comments after the article show that the public is not behind this atheist at all and they recognize that he is a trouble maker.  I fear that sometimes we as Christians end up being viewed as the troublemakers and that does not help the cause of Christ.  I think we should be involved in reigning in out of control government, but let us be careful where we chose our battles as not to put a blot on Christianity.

As I pointed out earlier, I do not have enough information to know whether or not that line has been crossed in this zoning (harassement) case.  Again, "there is a lot we do not know."  I simply want us all, including myself, to learn from this and to be reminded to be Christians first and political activists after that.

Jay's picture

Chip Van Emmerik wrote:

Jay (and others),

I still totally disagree. The government has established legal definitions of a church. Until this "church" constitutes itself as such, the state has no right to simply declare it such. He has met the building codes for the current use of the building. He is only in violation of the commercial codes being applied to his building now that the state has declared him a church. Why don't the boy/girl scouts who meet weekly in someone's home down the street have to follow commercial codes? They have regular meetings where cars fill the lot and people fill the home. Where are the exit signs, handicapped entrance ramps, ADA bathrooms and other such commercial requirements? 

Chip, if he's in violation of state building codes then he is, by definition, a criminal and a law breaker (and has temporarily disqualified himself for ministry since he is no longer "blameless"). Furthermore, the attitude of "the law is wrong and I am right" smacks to me of pugnaciousness - why not just comply with the state regs? The issue of whether or not he is leading a legally organized church or not becomes moot because he's under the righteous judgment of God for violating the law.

I really think Romans 12:14-21 applies here:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave iti to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Jay's picture

Chip - in what way is the state forcing Salman and his church to do something in violation of Scripture?

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Michelle Shuman's picture

Last night on our local news they did a piece about this guy and interviewed him and his wife.  He admitted to having built a +/- 2,000 SF building behind his house.  They showed the permits which say that is was built as a recreational or game room.  He says has has 50-60 people meeting there.  Most Bible studies I know have far fewer people than 50-60.  I know many established churches would love to have 50-60 people for their Sunday morning service.  In addition, to say you are building a rec room, then that is what is should be used as.  If your building a meeting hall of any type, than be honest about it.  I'm not sure the government is abusing their power as much as he has been misleading and bending the previously set up zoning rules.    I work in commercial real estate and we regularly go through zoning issues.  It is up to the end user to make sure they meet the codes.  If something happened in this facility that caused permanent injury or death, this guy could lose everything in a lawsuit and the City could also for letting him have a building that is being used for a purposed other than what is allowed. 

 

Don't get me wrong, I don't always agree with the government zoning regulations, but as Christians we are required to follow them as we are commanded to "obey them that have the rule over us".  As far as I can tell, they are not asking this guy to do anything in direct disobedience to God's commands.  But, jail time may be too much punishment for the situation.

Michelle Shuman

Chip Van Emmerik's picture

No one said they were Jay. Rendering to Ceaser what is due Ceaser does not equate to relinquishing legal rights. Paul refused to pay bribes to government officials and claimed his rights as a Roman citizen. I don't see anything wrong with Salman fighting this abuse of power in court. 

 

Again, this is no different from having the weekly scout meetings at your house, except the government has decided to single out a religious group.

Why is it that my voice always seems to be loudest when I am saying the dumbest things?

Jay's picture

Hey Chip -

So what Biblical principle is Mr. Salman being forced to violate by bringing the building up to code?  

 

 

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Chip Van Emmerik's picture

Already answered that in post 15 Jay.

Why is it that my voice always seems to be loudest when I am saying the dumbest things?

Michelle Shuman's picture

50-60 people meeting in a building that you told the officials you were building as a game room/recreational building?  That was a lie.  Scout meetings don't have 50-60 people meeting at someone's house.  There is no bribery here.  They have laws about what can be built where and what a building can be used for.  Would you feel the same way if he was using the building as a bar?  I think not.  His problem is he lied on the permits and built a building to host a lot of people while failing to meet federal, state, and local laws.  This was not  a small group of 15-20 people meeting once weekly to study God's Word and fellowship.  Again, we are specifically told in scripture to obey all athority not just the ones we like or agree with.

Michelle Shuman

Jim's picture

I don't see anything wrong with Salman fighting this abuse of power in court.

What I agree with: "I don't see anything wrong with Salman fighting this ... in court"

What I don't: I don't see this as an "abuse of power"

Jay's picture

Chip Van Emmerik wrote:

Already answered that in post 15 Jay.

Maybe I'm being dense, but I don't see it and don't see how 'rendering to Caesar' is even applicable here, unless you are trying to say that Salman has already taken care of his legal requirements?  I'm confused by your reply.

I'm agreement with Michelle - if he lied (or misstated) the purpose of his building on the permit - knowing full well that he intended to use it for religious gatherings when he reported it as a 'game room / rec. building' - then he deceived the state and deserves whatever penalty he gets.  That's not persecution, that's being stupid.  

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Larry's picture

Moderator

So Chip, I wonder how you would apply 1 Peter 2:13-15 to this situation. It seems pretty relevant.

Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.

Even if we make the argument that the government is acting foolishly by acting unfairly, this verse tells us how to silence them, doesn't it?

Why bring disrepute on the gospel and the church over a few exit signs and providing access to disabled persons? Is that really worth $12,000 and sixty days in prison not to mention bad press that makes it sound like churches are trying to get a free pass?

Chip Van Emmerik's picture

Just a side note Larry, but do you have any idea the costs involved in bringing a building up to commercial code? They only mentioned a couple of the specifics among the 67 citations, but commercial codes will include all things ADA (think outdoor and indoor ramps, bathroom inclusions  and configurations, hallway and door way sizes, etc) as well as parking lot requirements (including number of spaces based on occupancy rating, lighting, and usually paving) and landscaping (specific numbers of  trees and plants, rock or grass surround, irrigation of some sort). We're talking about a lot more than a couple exit signs, and, yes, I think the cost would far exceed the $12k he is facing in fines/penalties. 

 

I do not think 1 Peter 2 or any other passage means we cannot challenge abusive government. We are a nation of laws. No one, including government officials, is supposed to be above the law. Now, I would say, for sake of argument, if Salmen were to go all the way to the Supreme Court and lose, he should surrender and submit. But as long as legal, viable avenues remain available for pursuing justice, I do not think he errs morally to fight the abuse of power. 

Why is it that my voice always seems to be loudest when I am saying the dumbest things?

Jay's picture

Chip, I'm still confused.  Why are you considering this as an abuse of power?

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Larry's picture

Moderator

Just a side note Larry, but do you have any idea the costs involved in bringing a building up to commercial code?

A little bit, but probably not that much all told, unless this is a two story building. I think it's already up to code. It's just not commercial. But that's really irrelevant, it seems to me.

 

I do not think 1 Peter 2 or any other passage means we cannot challenge abusive government. We are a nation of laws. No one, including government officials, is supposed to be above the law. 

I don't think there's any case here to be made that it is "abusive," and no one has tried to make that case that I recall. But I don't see that in 1 Peter 2 anyway. If there was ever an "abusive" government, it would seem the one that Peter describes in his letter would be on the list. And he says to submit to them in order to shut them up. So I was asking for what you think the application might be. We are a nation of laws, and it appears that Mr. Salman is not living up to them, doesn't it?

There are some really difficult cases out there. This just doesn't seem to be one of them. Get the building up to code, or stop using it as you are currently using it. Put to silence the ignorance of foolish men by submitting to the authorities.

 

Chip Van Emmerik's picture

@ Jay and Larry - see post 5

Why is it that my voice always seems to be loudest when I am saying the dumbest things?

Jim's picture

Chip Van Emmerik wrote:

@ Jay and Larry - see post 5

 

Re: post 5

 

Quote:
If you want to have friends over for poker night every week (regardless of how many as long as the parking and noise were not a problem), you would not have an issue.

 

Response: Speculation

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

It does look to me like he is violating city ordinances. We live in an area where we have to have a permit for swimming pools over a certain size, fences in front yards must be less than 4' tall, and you can't have 'regular' anything- such as regular garage sales. Too many garage sales and you are running a resale business.

Regular organized meetings that involve large groups of people that are not family would also violate our zoning laws. Our neighborhood could not handle the traffic or parking, and it wasn't meant to. That's why it is zoned residential. AAMOF, we have to have a permit for any large gathering, much less a regularly scheduled meeting. 

This is not 'persecution', and it looks too much like a guy being obtuse and obstinate. Christians are NOT above the law, and we have far too many freedoms in America to go out looking for ways to start a ruckus and claim discrimination. 'Wise as serpents, harmless as doves'- note how bulldozers are not used as an analogy.

Jay's picture

Chip Van Emmerik wrote:

It's not about zoning laws at all. If you want to have friends over for poker night every week (regardless of how many as long as the parking and noise were not a problem), you would not have an issue. There is only a problem here because the government has declared them a church (even though they are not officially constituted and deny being a church) and therefore apply commercial codes to the meetings. It's ridiculous and abusive.


They deny that they are a church, but have a pulpit and a sign out front for the church that isn't a church?

You can't have your church and then protest that it's not one because of code violations.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Chip Van Emmerik's picture

Jay,

Did you look at the picture of the sign. No organizational name. No invitation to meetings. Only a simple message, "There is always hope with Jesus." I live in a smaller, very conservative town where signs like this pop up all the time - especially at Easter and Christmas, though some of them  are at least semi-permenant.

 

Furthermore, what about any other regular church meetings. My  church used to have small group meetings on Sunday nights in various homes. Happened every week. Is that also a commerial meeting that should be shut down by the state? Of course, the state has nothing  to say about the scout meetings happening every week in the house down the street, but hey, that's not a church group, right?

 

Jim,

You might think it's speculation, except all kinds of regular meetings happen in neighborhoods all over the country (scout meetings are a perfect analogy here), including Phoenix, and this is the only one being singled out. In case you missed it in my profile, I live here in AZ. I lived in the Phx metro area for 25 years, until last August when I moved 90 miles north to a smaller community. Most of mine and my wife's families are still scattered around the Valley of the Sun. When I lived in Queen Creek (rural edges of Phx metro), we had regular neighborhood meetings to discuss irrigation schedules and homeowner association business. Why isn't that a commerical meeting? 

Why is it that my voice always seems to be loudest when I am saying the dumbest things?

Larry's picture

Moderator

You said abusive. How is it abusive to apply zoning laws? Isn't there a big difference between enforcing zoning laws and being abusive?

The only question is whether or not these are legitimate zoning laws, and so far, no one has questioned their legitimacy. They simply question their application. The fact that might be unfairly enforced (might be, as Jim said, it is speculation otherwise) is irrelevant. Laws are quite frequently unfairly enforced. But getting stopped for speeding and appealing that everyone is doing it won't help much. 

Here's a piece that might be helpful: http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/2008-01-17/news/michael-salman-wants-to-b...

This article even says it is incorporated as a church.

I agree that he has the legal right to pursue this. I don't think he has biblical grounds to do so, at least so far as I can see.

Jay's picture

Chip, we're just going to have to disagree on this, I think.  Appreciate your replies.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

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