Phoenix preacher jailed in zoning dispute
Officials: Issue isn't religion, it's safety
by JJ Hensley - Jul. 11, 2012 09:57 PM
The Republic | azcentral.com
The story is shocking on its face: a Phoenix man sentenced to 60 days in prison for holding Bible studies in his home for family and friends.
But Phoenix prosecutors, neighbors and a handful of judges have all agreed that the services he held were not just for family and friends -- they were for dozens of congregants at the Harvest Christian Community Church, and his sentence had nothing to do with what was going on inside the building. However, it had everything to do with the size of the structure and its lack of exit signs, fire sprinklers and doors.
Michael Salman's dispute with Phoenix dates to at least 2007, when, he claims in a video posted online, the city began harassing him and his wife as they tried to build a 2,000-square-foot game room adjacent to their home on their 1.5-acre property near 35th and Northern avenues.
"The only people who came to our home were family and friends," Salman said in a video posted online before he reported to jail this week. "Our home was not open to the public; it was private."
Information presented at Salman's criminal trial directly contradicted his claim, however. For example, a private investigator testified that he was not acquainted with the Salmans when he attended the church and saw 40 or 50 people in attendance during regular services and 20 or 30 additional worshipers for special occasions such as baptisms.
Salman and his wife have not paid taxes on the property since an inspector from the Maricopa County Assessor's Office approved Salman's request to have the property classified as a church in 2008.
When the inspector visited the home, a sign outside the property included the name of the church, according to court documents, and the inspector found a podium, folding chairs and other items that allowed him to grant the property tax-exempt status.
At its heart, the case is about relatively mundane issues such as zoning, fire codes and construction codes, not the fact that Salman was conducting church services in his home, Phoenix prosecutor Aaron Carreon-Ainsa said.
"It has to do with whether there's an exit sign over the door, or with the number of doors," Carreon-Ainsa said of the game-room-turned-sanctuary, which contained more than 100 seats and a single door. "It's an assembly-use case. What people have called us about is: 'How can we do this with a person holding Bible studies with his family and friends in the living room?' That's not the case; that never has been the case."
Salman's lawyer, John Whitehead of the Washington, D.C.-based Rutherford Institute, plans to take the case to federal court with claims that Phoenix violated Salman's rights to assemble, to free speech and to religious freedom.
Whitehead said he also plans to look at other religious groups in the area -- Lutheran, Baptist, Nazarene and Vietnamese Catholic churches are among the houses of worship in the area -- to determine whether they were treated in a similar fashion as the Salmans. Another video Salman posted shows police officers in protective gear approaching his home in summer 2009.
"They're going to do to what they're going to do," Whitehead said. "They're committed to their beliefs. The question for the government is: 'What are you going to do with those types of people?' I have a blueprint for them, and what you don't do is send police into their home. I think that's an issue here: How far can the government go to regulate this kind of activity?"
It's a fair question, prosecutors concede.
The city's conflict with Salman began even before he and his wife decided to build the game room onto their home, when concerns about the use of the property were beginning to emerge. Salman's addition was approved by the city with the caveat that the property not house a business or church, among other uses.
The reason: Specific zoning and safety requirements would otherwise apply. Such concerns include adequate parking, emergency exits, Fire Department access and other measures intended to protect the safety of large numbers of people who might congregate there.
When city officials discovered Salman was using the game room as a sanctuary, prosecutors initiated a civil action against the Harvest Community Church, resulting in a fine of about $180,000, Carreon-Ainsa said.
That fine did not deter Salman from pursuing his calling.
"When we talk about (Neighborhood Services Division) investigations and the thousands every year, very, very few of those cases turn into criminal cases," Carreon-Ainsa said. "We had the option of filing another set of civil cases. Why would we do that if a person consistently disobeys the law and we've tried the civil avenue and that doesn't cause him to change his behavior? We then look for another tool in the toolbox, and in Phoenix, it's a criminal case."
Phoenix Municipal Judge Sallie Gaines levied the 60-day straight sentence, going against the recommendation of prosecutors who had initially requested a series of weekend stays to account for the time Salman needed to serve.
"Everyone is entitled under the United States Constitution to worship as they please," Gaines said in her ruling. "But there is a reason for the codes, and that is for public safety. And that, I believe, is all that the state is asking, is that the code violations be rectified."
Salman denied an interview request Wednesday after initially welcoming the opportunity.
The stint behind bars will not be his first.
Salman was sentenced to six years in prison in 1993 for shooting into an occupied home in Phoenix a year earlier. The victim told the judge that she felt one of the bullets from Salman's gun go through her hair and barely miss her head, according to court documents.
A witness in that case told prosecutors that Salman had used a gun to threaten a man in a Paradise Valley mall one month before he was indicted in the shooting, that Salman had participated in other drive-by shootings and that he carried a gun in a concealed holster.
Prosecutors also alleged that Salman told former County Attorney Rick Romley's son in December 1992 that "he and his father were willing to pay top dollar, or whatever it takes, for (Romley) to help him," according to court documents.
Salman wrote to the judge that the shooting was selfish and immature.
But Phoenix prosecutor John Tutelman recounted Salman's criminal history and allegations by neighbors and concluded in court: "This is a man who does what he wants, when he wants, and nobody can stop him."