Lawyer of Jailed Pastor in Home Bible Study Case Speaks Out

[UPDATE 7/12: Phoenix city officials release "fact sheet" and timeline regarding Michael Salman's case.]

The lawyer of Michael Salman, the Arizona pastor who is in jail after holding Bible studies at his home, appeared Wednesday on the show "FOX & Friends" to argue why his client is a victim of religious discrimination. Salman's wife Suzanne also made an appearance on the show to express her disbelief at the entire situation.

John Whitehead of The Rutherford Institute, which is representing Michael Salman, told host Steve Doocy that Salman's constitutional rights are being violated.

"The key is – the Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of religion … the right to assemble and talk to each other wherever you want to be – in public or in your home," he said.

Whitehead then compared Salman's case to the religious oppression in Iran.

"You might think it might happen in some place like Iran, or in some of the countries around the world that are regimes, but happening in the United States in my opinion is so shocking; it's beyond belief," said the lawyer.

Salman reported to jail on Monday after a Phoenix court found him guilty of 67 code violations in connection to a building where he hosts a weekly Bible study group. Salman was sentenced to 60 days in jail, three years probation and fined $12,180.

"FOX & Friends" host Doocy asked his wife why having private Bible studies at home would become a problem, noting, "People do it in my neighborhood all the time."

Suzanne expressed her shock and disbelief at the situation.

"It defies logic, honestly," she said. "I don't understand that something so small got just so large like this. People do it all over the United States all the time."

Michael Salman, an ordained pastor of Church of God in Christ and founder of Harvest Christian Fellowship, has argued that he has the right to worship at home on his private property. However, the City of Phoenix has insisted the issue is about zoning and code violations, not religious freedom.

Phoenix City Prosecutor Vicki Hill said in a statement: "It came down to zoning and proper permitting. Anytime you are holding a gathering of people continuously as he does, we ave concerns about people being able to exit the facility properly in case there is a fire, and that's really all this comes down to."

At the center of Salman's dispute with the city, which started in 2007, is whether the 2,000 square foot building in his backyard is a church. Before his conviction, Salman held Bible study gatherings inside the building, where around 30 or 40 people gathered weekly. The building has a pulpit and chairs.

The prosecutor's office said Salman was given a building permit to convert a garage into a "game room," not a church.

In 2009, police officers, armed with a search warrant, raided Salman's property and found 67 code violations. The pastor was charged with not having emergency exit signs over the doors, handicap parking spaces, and not having handicap ramps.

Salman has taken his fight to court but the Arizona courts have consistently ruled against him. In a Jan. 2010 ruling, a court stated that the state is not prohibiting Salman to run a church or worship services at the location, but it requires that Salman abide by "fire and zoning codes."

He received his jail sentence last month.

On Wednesday, his wife responded to his conviction of "zoning" and "code violations."

"It doesn't make sense," she said. "People are crowding our streets, other neighbors, but yet our people park all behind on our property. It makes no sense why we're being targeted."

The Rutherford Institute has filed an appeal with the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The group is looking at options for getting Salman out of jail.

Added Whitehead, "The early Christian church all met in homes. There would be no church today as we know if it weren't for the fact that they met in homes."

"You can do all kinds of meetings on a regular basis but for some reason if they call you a church, you're illegal. And again, that's what regimes do."


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