Phoenix Pastor Jailed Because He Flouted the Law!

The following post, originally published at From Law to Grace on August 7, 2012, has been updated to include additional facts and information pertinent to this case.

After Christians came out in droves to eat some good fried chicken at Chick-fil-A this past week, a Phoenix pastor and his lawyers apparently thought that Christians would also rise up (i.e., donate money) to defend the rights of all Americans to have a Bible study anytime and anywhere — existing zoning, building, fire, and safety codes be d***ed. Both the pastor, Michael Salman and his lawyers, John Whitehead and Nisha Whitehead of The Rutherford Institute, are sadly mistaken. And, from all appearances, it seems they want Evangelical Christians of all shapes and sizes to buy into that same mistake, all under the guise of “freedom of religion.”

As my good blogging friend, William Thornton over at SBC Plodder warned when this story first broke last month, don’t get suckered into taking what you hear about this Phoenix pastor at face value. Of course, if you don’t know the facts of the case, but merely rely upon the pastor and his lawyers — through the media (Fox News and Christian news outlets) — to spoon-feed you their version of the facts, then you will become one of those folks that P.T. Barnum talked about. And, you wouldn’t want that, now would you?

The more I learn about Mr. Salman, the more I come to realize that this case has very little to do with the First Amendment, but much to do with a contentious man who seems to rather enjoy the spotlight. Knowing what I know about The Rutherford Institute, I should say I am surprised that they would take up such a case in which the facts — as opposed to the raw emotion — make their client look very unsympathetic. More on that in a moment. For Mr. Whitehead to try to argue that “the same zoning laws used in Arizona to imprison Michael Salman for holding Bible studies will probably be passed across the United States” is hyperbole at its best, especially in light of . This case — as much as Pastor Salman and his defenders and lawyers would have you believe — has absolutely nothing to do with holding “Bible studies” in a private residence. This case has everything to do with the integrity of a pastor who appears, at almost every turn, to go out of his way to not only flout the law, but to do so in a way that could easily be construed to be both obnoxious and self-serving. Not exactly the qualities that you want in a pastor or a neighbor.

Following a comment that was left on my blog on Tuesday afternoon by Nisha Whitehead, one of Mr. Salman’s attorney’s at The Rutherford Institute, I decided should do a bit more research into this case. After reading several articles (here, here, and here), a picture began to form as to who this Pastor Salman might be. Let’s just say that these articles help to paint a more complete picture than the one which many conservative media outlets — including many Christian sources — have tried to paint.

The picture painted is of a man who was convicted in a drive-by shooting earlier in his life; a man who, even after becoming a Christian and a pastor, impersonated a police officer to “scare” a boy who was messing around with a girl from Salman’s church. (He was also convicted of a misdemeanor crime in that little escapade.); a man who once claimed to be a member of the “Embassy of God,” a sect which apparently believed that “Ambassadors from Heaven” did not have to follow the laws of the United States (sorta like diplomatic immunity);a man who appears to have a temper and who doesn’t play well with others, including his current neighbors (one of whom had a restraining order issued against Salman) and at least one former church which ousted him as pastor and had to get a court order to forcibly evict Salman from church property; a man who, when given opportunity after opportunity by the City of Phoenix to rectify the building code violations — fire and safety, NOT ZONING — not only refused to do so, but continued to move forward with building plans knowing that he did not have the permits required by law; a man who apparently was less than honest in what he told neighbors and city officials regarding the permitting process (it was not a “game room” as he claimed on his permit application); a man who comes across as the in-your-face obnoxious know-it-all proud “Christian” who thinks that he is right while everyone else is wrong. In short, the picture painted of Michael Salman is not one that should be hanging next to humble Christian pastors undergoing real persecution in the Middle East and elsewhere around the globe.

Contrary to certain hyperbolic assertions, we do not have a case where city officials are trying to change the law to keep out churches or to shut down existing churches. Could that happen? Yes, but this is not that case. On the contrary, the laws regulating zoning, building, fire and safety in Phoenix are neither new nor are they prohibited ex post facto laws which were hastily enacted to harass an innocent pastor just trying to practice his religion freely. These laws are not, as far as I can tell, being applied in some kind of capricious and inconsistent manner. In fact, it appears that Mr. Salman could legally construct his church building — in his own back yard — as long as he complied with the fire and safety codes that EVERY OTHER CHURCH IN THE CITY OF PHOENIX HAS TO COMPLY WITH.

A federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act of 2000, protects religious institutions — including churches in Phoenix — from burdensome and draconian zoning laws designed to stifle religious expression. However, this same law does not exempt religious groups from meeting reasonable fire and safety codes proscribed by a city or municipality. Did I like to jump through all the hoops that the City of Alamogordo put our church through when we built a new conference center and education building recently? No. Were there requirements that I thought were stupid? Yes. Did we comply? Absolutely. I have absolutely zero tolerance for folks like Mr. Salman who believe the First Amendment somehow exempts them from the rules that apply to the rest of us.

While I have had my fair share of disagreements with building and zoning officers when I practiced law, I cannot say that what Phoenix has done is an unconstitutional abridgment of Mr. Salman’s free exercise rights. If that were the case, I would be one of the first to be all over it. No, what we have here is not anti-Christian bigotry masquerading as nefarious zoning regulations. Instead, we have a supposedly Christian pastor who has failed to uphold the overarching qualifications for the pastoral office — having character that is “above reproach.” I’m sorry, but given the facts of this case, there appears to be a severe lack of integrity on the part of this pastor. Waving the Bible and claiming a violation of your First Amendment Right to “freedom of religion” simply will not be a strong defense in this case (with all due respect to The Rutherford Institute).

Unfortunately, many Christians will read the headlines such as appeared on Fox News, “Arizona man sent to jail for holding Bible studies in his home,” (here) and will become immediately outraged over what they believe is yet another anti-Christian abuse of government power (although a legal segment on O’Reilly Tuesday concluded that the City of Phoenix was right). However, when you review the facts of this case — which date back to 2006 — you begin to realize that Mr. Salman may not be like the truly innocent pastors who have been thrown in jail in such places as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other repressive countries. Not even close.

Why? Because the facts seem to indicate a man who has not only failed to comply with the laws that he was aware of, but who actually took affirmative steps to break such laws. Not starting in July 2012, but in 2006. According to a Fact Sheet released by the City of Phoenix, Mr. Salman has either been cited or found guilty of multiple code violations (not zoning) dating back to 2007. As of today, no court of law has overturned or vacated Mr. Salman’s misdemeanor violations.

While I know that the government can be wrong and that government officials can lie, I have no reason to believe that the citations were not properly issued in this case. Of course, Mr. Salman’s attorneys at The Rutherford Institute would point you to a competing set of facts (here) which they believe support their client. Having read both, I am not persuaded by Mr. Salman or his attorneys. This is clearly not a case where an innocent pastor and his church were forced to close because the government decided that they no longer wanted to tolerate a particular religion. This is not a case where an innocent pastor, unaware of the rules, just stumbled into trouble.
When all the emotion is stripped away, what we are left with is a man who continually flouted the law while trying to shield himself from any consequences of his blatant disregard for said law by trying to wrap himself in the mantle of the First Amendment. It didn’t work. That’s why he is in jail. Not because of the Bible studies in his home, but because he thought that part of the Bible he was studying — namely Romans 13 and 1 Timothy 3 — didn’t apply to him. Don’t be suckered into thinking the same.

Comments

    • says

      It’s probably worth noting that it was another Southern Baptist by the name of Todd that really got the ball rolling on this story with a title of “Homeowner Jailed for Hosting Bible Study”!

      I try my best to ignore that particular Todd, last name Starnes. Or rather, he tries harder to ignore me giving me the block on twitter. :-)

      Someone should nominate Howell to be Land’s successor. It doesn’t hurt to have your chief religious liberty expert familiar with things like RLUIPA and RFRA!

  1. William Thornton says

    I’m not inclined to change my opinion of this case. While there have been instances where communities have attempted to use land use laws to stifle churches, mainly because of taxation issues, this doesn’t look like such a case.

    I think the Rutherford folks presumed that they would win public opinion on this one but found otherwise. I am surprised that they took so long to get their view out.

  2. Zack says

    Having reviewed the the additional perspective offered by The Rutherford Institute and having taken the evening to think on these issues, I’m still going to stand by my original agreement with Counselor Scott on this one. This simply does not strike me as a case of religious discrimination.

  3. says

    When Christians behave belligerently toward the law, it does not help the cause of religious liberty.

    Of course, when I first read the story, I was upset that the evil city invaded this poor man’ home Bible Study. As Howell and William have pointed out, there seems to be quite a bit more to this than the original reports showed.

    • Frank L. says

      Dave. You are right. This guy could not be more wrong.

      But. This case will embolden municipalities like NYC school districts

      Expect challenges to home churches to increase not decrease because of this guy.

      You are correct to point out the damage this guy has done. Now anyone that holds Bible Studies in any remodeled room is going to revisit this case.

      Will municipalities win? Not always perhaps but defending oneself will still cost money and time.

      • Nate says

        “Expect challenges to home churches to increase not decrease because of this guy.”

        So this guy is going to be the cause of persecution of Christians in the U.S.? I understand your point, but I think you are going a little too far. Would you have the same attitude for those home churches in China who are breaking the law? Should the church simply fold up?

        Now, while I do think this guy could have gone elsewhere and held his bible study, there are certainly municipalities that are trying to squeeze out religious expression in the public square (in churches using schools, etc.) And I do agree that it is only going to get worse, but this guy is not the stick of dynamite that has been igniting post Christian America.

      • Nate says

        Furthermore, how many people at a bible study will be too many? 2, 4, 10? My neighbor can have 20 people over for a barbecue and I have 8 over for a bible study and I will break zoning laws?

  4. says

    Thanks for providing more context for this. I was among those who jumped on the story as evidence of growing persecution in America. Thanks for giving us “the rest of the story” to correct mistaken notions.

  5. Donald says

    “When all the emotion is stripped away, what we are left with is a man who continually flouted the law while trying to shield himself from any consequences of his blatant disregard for said law by trying to wrap himself in the mantle of the First Amendment. It didn’t work. That’s why he is in jail. Not because of the Bible studies in his home,”

    So, what is the dividing line between an “at home” bible study and a public place of worship? I hold “Bible Reading Groups” in my home weekly. We are now averaging around 30 folks each week.

    • Frank L. says

      Donald. That’s a good question. You can bet your answer and the world’s answer will differ greatly.

      All it will take is one neighbor who doesn’t like Jesus.

      I have such a neighbor at my church.

      I pray God will prosper and protect you.

    • William Thornton says

      Local zoning ordinances will have a definition of a church. It is not an exact business which is why there is litigation. Often the test comes when the quality of life for the residential neighborhood is affected – cars, parking, noise, etc. My local ordinance specifies a “structure” consecrated for worship and adds some language.

      There is an obvious tension here. Being a good neighbor minimizes some of it. People have all kinds of gatherings in their homes.

      • Frank L. says

        William, I don’t disagree that “being a good neighbor” is helpful and simply basic Christian behavior.
        However, it is usually not enough. We live in a society that sues at the drop of the hat.
        Also, it’s not just “parking and such” where the government encroaches on churches. About a year or so ago, I got a call from the District Attorney. When that did not go his way, I got a letter threatening a $1000 fine and six months in jail.
        My crime: serving hot fudge sundaes one night of a revival. They considered this “operating a restaurant” without the approval (note that word) of the county health department. I have a constitutional attorney in my congregation (along with two other attorneys—the Bible says go out into the highways and by-ways and compel the sinners to come in).
        They were ready to defend me when I went to jail—which I had already planned to do.
        Let me add, that the Health Department regulation “specifically exempts churches and their GUESTS.” Note that word, “guest.” Other social organizations (Country Clubs) are also exempted. Here’s how they were getting around it. They said, “Because I advertised the event to the community (as our local Country Club and other social organizations regularly do), they did not consider people attending our church to be “guests.” They consider people who attend our church but are not “members” to be the, “public.”
        Do you know of any church that does not invite the “public” to be guests at say, a pot-luck?
        A few hours before the police were scheduled to come and “lock down our revival and cart me off to the pokey,” the local Council Representative worked out a compromise I could live with.
        What prompted this: a person who does not like Christianity or anything about Christianity received a flyer inviting the community to our Spring-Fest. The words, “Sundaes on Sunday,” bothered her. She happens to work for the County Health Department.
        So, my point is: we should be careful jumping on Phoenix’s bandwagon (though I believe they are technically correct in this instance). I do not think it is wise for Christians to “sharpen the sword of Caesar.”

        Sorry for the long post.

        • Donald says

          “we should be careful jumping on Phoenix’s bandwagon”

          Truly.

          The Rutherford Institute has a good track record and top notch talent. I tend to believe their take on this. Even people who behave badly have rights.

          • Dave Miller says

            We should be slow to jump on any bandwagon. But the simple truth is that very often, the initial reports of a situation do not turn out to be accurate.

            It is always best to wait, to examine things carefully and to make our judgments with clarity.

          • Frank L. says

            I think what makes it look odd for the Rutherford Institute to be involved with this man is that this guy is so clearly in the wrong.

            I would guess that the RI would hope to have had a better client. They are defending a principle, not a person.

            Personally, I think this would have been a fight they would have been better served to avoid. I’d like to know what their reasoning is. They are pretty sharp people.

            This just looks like a mess.

          • Donald says

            “They are defending a principle, not a person.”

            Frank,

            Yes, you have it there. I want to defend the principle regardless of the person.

            I am almost swayed by what has been written here, but it all seems to come down to the right of a homeowner to have a large group of people over to his house: if it is for religious reasons then all the more so. This is ultimately a matter of private property, peaceable assembly and religious freedom.

            Regardless of what some folks think he should of done or of his personal sin history.

          • says

            Donald,

            I don’t disagree with you about The Rutherford Institute in general. I don’t know of an instance where I have not supported one of their cases, but the attorneys at RI are not infallible. Attorneys take cases for all kinds of reasons. I would assume that the Whiteheads truly believe in their client and his cause. However, just because they are Christian attorneys representing a “pastor” and his church does not mean that they are automatically right or that Christians should automatically support their cause. Having reading RI’s fact sheet and having read more about Mr. Salman, I find myself even less sympathetic to their cause than I was two days ago. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the legal arena, not just in the public (Christian) arena. Thanks and God bless,

            Howell

  6. Bennett Willis says

    Regarding Donald’s concerns above–As William pointed out, when you start causing problems in the neighborhood the likelyhood of someone complaining goes up. Parking/Traffic is a major issue for almost all neighborhoods. Encouraging people to car pool to come to the meetings is both reasonable and neighborly. It also increases accountability in attendance.

    I doubt that noise is a problem in this case. :)

  7. Jon (not that guy) Whitehead says

    Good words, Howell. It’s not uncommon to hear about zoning ordinances or rules that unfairly impact churches. But the more you read about this case, the more it appears to be a group trying to pit religion against safety. Sometimes a dangerous situation is just a dangerous situation, not an atheist plot.

  8. Chief Katie says

    This entire case is the poster case for bad behavior on the part of Christians claiming the evil government is oppressing them with tyrannical laws and methods.

    I live in the Phoenix Metro area. As cities go, we have a good many churches both Protestant and Catholic… but no matter what anyone says, Arizona is Mormon country. Within 3 miles of my home is a Mormon Ward and an “Institute for Religion (read Mormon) and just about 6 miles away a new Mormon Temple is being built. The reason I bring up the Mormon population is to illustrate how important faith is in the fabric of the people of this area. More importantly to the case, our state legislative branches have a good many Mormons serving. In fact one our Mormon Senators created some laws that allow home schoolers to use the gymnasiums of the public schools, as the Mormons still pay taxes that build schools. So Arizona is pretty friendly place for people to exercise their faith. My U.S. Congressman is Jeff Flake.

    I’ve been following Mr. Salman for at least 4 years. In general, the media has not been kind to him. That’s no surprise because Media seems determined to belittle people of faith.

    I tended to side with Mr. Salman because initially, it did seem that the Salman family was just having a Bible study in their home. Boy, was I wrong. A little background on Mr. Salman is probably appropriate here. He has a felony on his record. It seems he thought at a young age that participating in a drive by shooting was appropriate. That cost him a stay on the expense of the tax payers. But since then, Salman has a long series of appearing and disappearing business addresses. He seems to have a hard time picking up his official mail, but most telling is his 501(c) filing. Yes, yes, I know, he is an ordained minister. What a racket here. I could go on-line and become a Minister-at-a- price myself, and voila… no property taxes for me either.

    Most telling is Mr. Salman’s ‘game room’. I’ve seen some pictures of it and it has an altar, a pulpit and 145 blue folding chairs all arranged for greatest attention to the pulpit. Add to that a sign just outside the property that says “Harvest Christian Fellowship”. But no, this is isn’t a church. Of course not, who in their right mind could conclude that this was a church? Then there is the collection of the tithe. Now here, I just have to stop and chuckle. When we go to a Bible study or have one in our home, we share cookies, cakes, vegies, etc. Sometimes even an entire pot luck dinner, but a tithe… nope, no tithe collected or received.

    Salman seemed intent on obfuscating the law. At every juncture he manipulated, told half-truths, avoided, ignored and in some instances blatantly flaunted his lawlessness.

    Shame on the Rutherford Institute. I expect better from them.

    Now he is paying the price. During the summer in Phoenix, Tent City could be compared to Hell. The irony is not lost on me. Perhaps Mr. Salman and Sheriff Joe Arpaio can teach each other the latest in public antics. They deserve each other.

    • Rick says

      Katie,

      Since you live there it would be interesting to hear your perspectives…

      What disturbs me about the case is all of pronouncements I hear coming out of the Phoenix Prosecutor’s office that suggest a real lack of understanding of the place of Bible studies in the Christian community. The last one indicated that “more than 12″ would be okay if the people involved were largely family. The lack of discussion around what if the people in attendance were not related left me wondering how Phoenix would interpret their zoning laws and, if left unchallenged, whether I might see the same interpretation of zoning laws in my own town.

  9. says

    Kinda seems like Peter wrote these words for just a situation like this:

    “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to the governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 3:13–17)

  10. Christiane says

    HOWELL,

    thank you for putting some cleansing light on this matter for everyone . . . (I had heard about this man before, in another context, in some research that I am involved in)

    You have my respectful admiration.
    God bless!

  11. says

    Thanks for all the great comments and discussion. I think that many of, like Chief Katie expressed, are willing to give other Christians the benefit fo the doubt at the beginning, particularly when we are operating on limited facts. However, when we learn more complete facts on each individual case, it might turn out that a Christian is in the wrong. I think that the Salman story is just such a case. I appreciate Chief Katie adding even more to the story that I was not able to include.

    Two points of that I perhaps need to make even clearer: 1) This case was never about zoning laws or traffic congestion (although neighbors might rightly have been perturbed about increased traffic in their residential neighborhood). This was about having a new building which was going to be used as a worship facility (not a gameroom as was indicated on the permit application) meeting minimal safety and fire codes that every other church in Phoenix would have to meet. 2) I do believe that there are times when government has abused its power (zoning, building codes, etc.) in order to limit religious organizations (not always Christian churches, by the way — see the KY Mosque for another example). This is simply not one of those times. As Frank pointed out, this is a case of a man crying wolf and liking the attention that he gets. If you take a moment to watch Mr. Salman’s many Youtube videos, you will understand that this is not a sympathetic client. And, yes, I am surprised at The Rutherford Institute for taking the case, but I well remember as a practicing attorney (sorry CB) taking my own share of cases which turned out to be “dogs.” Thanks and God bless,

    Howell

    • Chief Katie says

      Howell, I thank you for your nice comments. There is just one more thing that I neglected to include in my comments.

      I’m sure everyone knows, that we have serious illegal alien problems in AZ. It’s so bad, that the federal government, whose responsibility is primarily to keep us safe, has abandoned that responsibility and have solved it by placing signs out in the desert to warn us to be careful of criminal aliens running amok determined in many cases (not all) to engage in really bad crimes such as kidnapping and gun running. They have taken recently to carrying military grade weapons.

      The result of this is that the citizenry of AZ has a heightened alert about things that seem unusual. We’ve found illegals, hundreds of them in single family homes in up-scale neighborhoods. They are left without food, etc. and leaving the home is risky business. We’ve also found TONS of illegal drugs in single family homes. I’m not going to go down the illegal controversy now, but as a result we pay attention to things that ‘don’t belong’.

      The area where Mr. Salman lives isn’t rural, but not exactly suburban either. This is not uncommon for many parts of Arizona. A new building on over 4 acres of land with increased traffic will certainly cause neighbors to wonder. It’s a fact of Arizona life.

      Tent City: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wkyiEINZB7I

      What these protestors don’t tell people is that there is a very, very large air-conditioned building where inmates can go 24/7.

  12. Dee says

    Actually home fellowships I am involved with do receive tithes or offerings…501c or not. We also have no desire for a building or designated pastor.we operate in prayerful cooperation with our gifts and callings encouraged.

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