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On The Front Lines

Rutherford Institute Asks Arizona Supreme Court to Reconsider Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus in Case of Phoenix Man Jailed for Home Bible Study

PHOENIX, Ariz. —Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have filed a motion asking the Arizona Supreme Court to reconsider a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the case 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 a weekly Bible study, allegedly in violation of the city’s building codes. While the Arizona Supreme Court denied the original motion because the case had not been reviewed by the Arizona Court of Appeals or appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court, Institute attorneys point out that Arizona statutory law did not allow for these further appeals, and thus the motion for habeas corpus is appropriate. Institute attorneys are challenging the legality of Salman’s imprisonment as a violation of his First Amendment and statutory 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 his residence, he is required to comply with all local laws relating to an actual church that is open to the public. Salman will appear in municipal court today to determine if additional jail time will be added to his sentence for allegedly violating his probation by holding Bible studies after being ordered not to have more than 12 people gathered on his property at any one time.

The fact sheet on the case is available here.

“While Michael Salman should never have been charged with a crime for simply exercising his religious beliefs on his own property, to keep him in prison while the question of his basic rights is being considered is the ultimate injustice,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “The continued imprisonment of Michael Salman for simply worshipping God with his family and friends on his own property demonstrates the lengths to which government bureaucrats will go in service of imposing dubious regulations on average citizens.”

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.

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