A Phoenix, Ariz., Christian who has held Bible studies in his house for years, often in the face of city threats not to do so, will remain in jail for having those studies, after the state Supreme Court today refused to intervene.
Officials with the Rutherford Institute today announced the court had denied a petition for a writ of habeas corpus that had been filed.
Michael Salman is serving a 60-day jail sentence and was ordered to be fined some $12,000 for using his private residential property to hold a weekly Bible study. The city said his offenses involved city building codes, but his defenders have pointed out that those codes are for commercial properties, and the city does not apply them to football parties, social gatherings and other events that are held in homes.
A statement from the Rutherford Institute said attorneys were “are undeterred and will continue their legal efforts to challenge Michael Salman’s detention in Tents City Jail in Maricopa County as a violation of his First Amendment rights to religious freedom and assembly.”
Salman’s defenders are challenging city claims 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.
“Since the time of this nation’s birth, the right of habeas corpus has been the basis of American freedoms,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “Each day of Michael Salman’s imprisonment is one more day in which the civil liberties of all Americans are being trampled by overzealous government agents. However, we are resolved to continue to challenge his detention in and out of the courts.”
Since 2005, Salman and his wife Suzanne have held Bible studies for friends and family. But neighbors complained and in 2007 city officials told the Salmans to stop holding the Bible studies.
The couple then built a 2,000-square-foot building on their property, with city permits, to hold up to about 40 people to use for the weekly Bible study.
In 2009, nearly a dozen police officers, accompanied by city inspectors, raided the Salmans’ property. The city decided to call the weekly study times a church, and blasted the couple for not meeting commercial building codes involving emergency exit signs, handicapped parking spaces and such.
But the Rutherford Institute, in challenging the city’s case, alleges the real motive was revealed when the city told the couple, “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 Salmans’ 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,’” the group said.
City code officials in Phoenix did not respond to a request for comment, and officials in the city prosecutor’s office declined to respond to a message requesting a comment.
Salman had raised the issue in his interactions with city officials in court. “The state is stating … that this is an A3 Occupancy because it is a religious use. They’re basing the occupant load on use and square footage. So, my question to them is – and where I’m – where this is all going is, if this can be used as a home theater without being – without having to have an A3 Occupancy, why could this not be used as a religious use without having an A3 Occupancy?”
He got no answer.
The filing cited violations of the First Amendment, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the Arizona Free Exercise of Religion Act and other laws.
The Rutherford Institute warned if such a precedent stands the city could require that the homes of homeschooling families, those who have dinner parties, or those who watch movies with friends to have sprinkler systems, handicap-accessible restrooms, exit signs and parking spaces.
“If families may not gather with fellow believers on their own property to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences, then religious freedom in its most basic sense is dead,” Rutherford noted.