On The Front Lines
Citing Misapplication of Commercial Codes, Rutherford Institute Asks Court to Overturn Conviction of Phoenix Man Jailed for Home Bible Study
PHOENIX, Ariz. —Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have filed a motion asking the Phoenix Municipal Court to overturn the conviction of a Phoenix man who is serving a 60-day jail sentence and was fined more than $12,000 for using his private residential property to host weekly Bible studies, allegedly in violation of the city’s building codes. The motion points out that the state courts completely overlooked specific provisions of the City’s codes that explicitly exempt residential property from compliance with the commercial building and fire codes, and that the conviction and sentence must therefore be overturned. While Institute attorneys continue to challenge the legality of Salman’s imprisonment as a violation of his First Amendment and statutory rights to religious freedom and assembly, this motion is based on the argument that no reasonable fact-finder could have found Salman guilty because the cited code provisions apply only to commercial property and to uses that are incompatible with typical residential use. In light of the fact that countless religious adherents across the nation regularly study scriptures and pray in their homes, this use cannot be said to convert the home into a commercial or public use.
“All across the country, in cities, towns and villages of every size imaginable, Americans of all faiths—Christians, Jews, Muslims and so on—gather in their homes for fellowship, prayer and reflection,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “Yet as communities from New York to California adopt strident zoning codes crafted in such a way as to keep churches, synagogues and mosques at a distance, especially from residential neighborhoods, and discourage religious gatherings, these religious rituals are now being outlawed in America.”
Since 2005, Michael Salman and his wife Suzanne have hosted Bible studies for family and friends. However, after some neighbors allegedly complained about the gatherings, city officials got involved. In 2007, city officials ordered the Salmans to stop holding the Bible studies in their home, insisting that they were in violation of the zoning ordinance and construction code. The Salmans subsequently erected a 2,000-square-foot building in their backyard, large enough to hold approximately 40 people, which they proceeded to use for their weekly Bible studies. Attendees parked their vehicles on the Salmans’ 1.5 acre property. In June 2009, nearly a dozen police officers, accompanied by city inspectors, raided the Salmans’ property, searching for violations. Having determined that Salman’s weekly Bible studies constituted a church, 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 or handicap ramps. Salman was later found guilty of 67 code violations.
In coming to Salman’s defense, The Rutherford Institute is challenging the city’s assertion that “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 Salman’s 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 Scouts solely because they are “religious worship.” Salman is currently serving his 60-day jail term in the Tent City Jail in Maricopa County. The Tents Jail, begun in 1993 as a response to jail overcrowding, 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.