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On The Front Lines

Rutherford Institute Warns Sheriff Arpaio, Tents Jail Officials Against Interfering with Michael Salman’s Right to Hold Bible Studies in Jail

Phoenix Man Jailed 60 Days, Fined $12,000 for Hosting Home Bible Studies in ‘Violation’ of Zoning Codes

PHOENIX, Ariz. — In the wake of the Arizona Supreme Court’s refusal to intervene in the case of a Phoenix man who is serving a 60-day jail sentence for using his private residential property to host a weekly Bible study, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have sent a stern warning to Maricopa County’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio that jail officials are required by law to accommodate Michael Salman’s Christian beliefs, including his right to practice his religion while in jail by holding Bible studies, witnessing to fellow inmates and observing the Sabbath. Institute attorneys had already been called upon to intervene once after learning that officials at Tent City had refused to accommodate Salman’s request to observe the Sabbath while incarcerated and threatened to throw him “in the hole” if he failed to show up for work in the kitchen.

Institute attorneys are continuing their legal efforts to challenge Salman’s detention in Tents City Jail in Maricopa County as a violation of his First Amendment rights to religious freedom and assembly. Salman still faces the possibility of additional jail time on charges 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.

The Rutherford Institute’s letter to Sheriff Joe Arpaio is available here.

 “A person does not shed his constitutional rights upon being incarcerated,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “So long as Michael Salman is in jail, he has the right to assemble with his fellow prisoners, to observe the Sabbath, and to practice his sincerely held religious beliefs. Prison officials would do well to acknowledge this fact.”

Michael Salman has been serving a 60-day jail sentence in the Tent City Jail in Maricopa County for allegedly violating the zoning ordinances of the City of Phoenix by using his private residential property to host a weekly Bible study. 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.

As Institute attorneys work for his release, they are also taking steps to assure that Salman’s religious rights are being respected by prison officials. Institute attorneys already had to intervene once when Salman was forced to work on the Sabbath, a violation of his sincerely held religious beliefs. Salman was allegedly threatened with being put “in the hole” if he did not perform work in the jail kitchen on Sundays. The matter has since been rectified and Salman has been given a “job” which does not involve violating his religious obligation to keep the Sabbath.

Noting Salman’s religious rights under the United States Constitution, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and Arizona’s Free Exercise of Religion Act, Institute attorneys are warning jail officials against future such incidences. Salman has been organizing Bible studies for fellow inmates, with groups sometimes reaching 20 or more people. On one such occasion, prison officials allegedly dispersed the group. Based upon this information, Institute attorneys have requested that prison officials give written assurance that the religious rights of Salman will not be violated. The letter states, “Given that federal and state law assures Mr. Salman of the right to exercise his religious beliefs while incarcerated, we hereby request that you provide immediate written assurance that Mr. Salman’s rights will be respected throughout the term of his sentence, including his right to fellowship with other Christians and witness to non-Christians by participating in and leading Bible studies with other inmates.”