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.