The Arizona pastor who is currently imprisoned for hosting regular Bible studies at his home may have to serve up to three years for violating his probation.
Michael Salman, an ordained pastor of Church of God in Christ and the founder of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Phoenix, appeared in court Monday on charges that he violated his probation by continuing to hold Bible studies on his 4.6 acre property with more than 12 people, and for failing to pay over $12,000 in fines. The Phoenix Municipal Court had earlier ruled that Salman was not to have more than 12 people at his home until he met the city's building codes, fire codes and other safety codes.
"He was found guilty of violating that (12 people limit) today. So in two to four weeks supposedly the court will decide what they are going to do in terms of his violation," said John Whitehead, Salman's attorney and founding president of the legal group The Rutherford Institute, to The Christian Post after the Monday court hearing. "The prosecutor is arguing for more jail time."
Whitehead noted that 15 to 20 people were meeting in Salman's home for Bible study after the court's order of a 12-persons limit. "[They brought him to court] to see if they are going to extend the 60 days in jail," he said. "He is on three year probation, which means that he could get up to three years in jail."
Last Monday, Salman began his 60-day jail sentence at Maricopa County Jail for hosting Bible studies twice a week in his home. A Phoenix court found him guilty of 67 code violations in connection to failing to comply to the city's building, fire, safety, and zoning codes.
The city of Phoenix argues that Salman's case is not about religious freedom but about public safety. In an interview with CP, the city prosecutor – or chief prosecutor – for Phoenix, Aaron J. Carreon-Ainsa, noted that five judges have looked at Salman's case, including two U.S. district judges and an appellate judge, and have affirmed the conviction.
"We are interested in ensuring that people are provided a safe place in which they can worship," said Carreon-Ainsa. "We don't want a tragedy that we sometimes read about in third world countries where people are gathered for whatever purpose and they perish because of a fire or some other situation that they are not able to protect themselves [from]..."
Salman, who is a father of six, has been hosting Bible studies on his property for the past 7 years. The city of Phoenix began interacting with Salman about zoning concerns starting in 2006, when the Zoning Administrator informed him that his property was analogous to a church and therefore he should adjust his home to comply with the Zoning Ordinance. According to the City of Phoenix Prosecutor's Office, the city has repeatedly asked Salman to comply with the safety codes and "he chose to ignore these requests for voluntary compliance prior to the commencement of any proceedings."
But Brad Dacus, founding president of the Pacific Justice Institute – which has defended several home Bible study cases – weighed in and disagreed with the city's argument.
"The city is dealing with a 5-acre parcel of land. Based on the information we have received, there are no bona fide health or safety concerns that have been brought to light," said Dacus to CP on Tuesday. "There have been no injuries incurred by any individuals that have come to gather for this purpose. There are no imminent risks of injuries for anyone gathered for this religious purpose. And there are no bona fide nuisances that have arisen since its usage.
"This attempt by the city of Phoenix is an overbearing usage of their authority in a manner that is clearly not warranted."
In a YouTube video, the Salmans give a tour of their large property, emphasizing that the dozens of cars that come to their home for the Bible study are parked behind their private gate on their property and not on the streets. A notable discrepancy is that while Salman says around 30 to 40 people usually gather at his home, the city says that up to 80 people with seating for a hundred is common. Salman and his attorney decry the city's harsh punishments meted out over a home Bible study to be in violation of the defendant's religious freedom.
Dacus also commented on the most recent court hearing, "To the extent to which the city of Phoenix has placed this limitation of only 12 people being able to meet in this home, such a narrow limitation is suspect as necessary and it seems arbitrary in terms of the number selected and as well as who they chose to enforce it."
PJI recently successfully defended a local Christian Bible group meeting in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., that was vulnerable to a controversial city code that required all religious, fraternal or nonprofit organizations of three people or more to obtain a conditional-use permit for hosting meetings, including Bible studies. The couple hosting the Bible group faced a $300 fine for violating this code. PJI successfully convinced the city of San Juan Capistrano to adopt a new policy that now allows up to 40 people to meet in a private residence without a permit.
But the news is not as positive for Salman, who still faces a $12,180 fine and may have his 60-day jail sentence extended in a few weeks by the court.
Clarification: July 17, 2012:
An article on July 17, 2012, about an Arizona pastor who is currently serving a prison sentence for hosting a weekly Bible study held in a building that violated the city's building safety codes originally reported that five judges found Michael Salman guilty. Aaron J. Carreon-Ainsa of the City Prosecutor's Office in Phoenix clarified that there was only one trial and the other judges reviewed the case and affirmed the conviction.