A street preacher in Arizona is fighting a jail sentence for holding private worship meetings at his home.
Michael Salman says that he has been battling the City of Phoenix for years after code enforcement officials told him that if he was going to hold worship gatherings on his property, it would be considered an “occupancy” and must be subject to commercial code regulations. Salman hosts a weekly study with his family and friends in a building located in his back yard, which is on approximately an acre and a half of land, with an additional 3.2 acres behind it. He asserts that the meetings are private and not open to the general public.
“The only people who go in that building is my wife and I and our guests,” he said. “People have a right to gather at their home and on their property with their guests. Why can’t we have people as our guests?”
He said that the city responded by stating that religious worship cannot be considered as being private.
Salman originally constructed the building as an accessory to his residence, and was labeled a game room. For as long as the building was being used as a game room, officials had no problem with it being classified as private, simply because it was for recreation and not religious purposes. He stated that two weeks after the family decided to move their worship services out of their home and into the building in their back yard, they were cited for violating the city’s zoning code.
“That type of enforcement is against the law; it’s unconstitutional,” Salman stated in an online video. “You cannot tell people that they can gather for recreation, civic, social, [and] amusement [purposes] and everything, but then if they gather to worship Jesus Christ or they have some form of religious worship in their home, suddenly they’re disobeying the law because their home should be an occupancy.”
“We are not even allowed to have a Bible study in our living room without converting it to a church,” he told Christian News Network.
The situation began in 2002, when a neighbor complained to officials that Salman and his wife Suzanne were holding religious meetings at their home. Salman said that he made changes to the house to comply with requirements as best as possible, but the city kept changing the code. He then moved his worship services to the accessory building, which he furnished with folding chairs and a pulpit.
Salman explained that his family and friends all park on his property behind a gated area and not in the street. Approximately 10-15 cars drive onto his yard each week.
“You can’t even see the cars,” he said.
When the city continued to press the matter, and would not listen to his contentions that the facility was only for private use, he sought relief through the state court. The court refused to hear the case, remarking that the situation should be handled locally. Salman then attempted to file a federal lawsuit, but District Judge James A. Tielborg dismissed the case, claiming that he could not file yet as the state courts were still handling the matter. Salman then refiled when the state ruling was completed, but his challenge was again dismissed. Tielborg is purportedly an outspoken evangelical Christian.
The case has now been appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals as one of Salman’s last chances to obtain an injunction against the City of Phoenix.
He says that the city has continued to cite his property as a “safety concern” because of the number of friends and family that gather, which reportedly are between 40-50 people.
“We’ve [asked] the City of Phoenix, ‘How many people can we have?’ and their reply is if you have more than two people, you’re breaking the law,” Salman explained.
The city further advised that Salman must facilitate handicapped parking at his home, along with a handicapped bathroom, although none of this family and friends are handicapped.
“Why are we being forced as Americans, as citizens of the United States of America, to adhere to commercial code?” he asked. “Why is our religious worship being treated differently than everyone else’s private worship or private gatherings? People celebrate Super Bowls and all kinds of stuff in their homes and they’re not being prosecuted like we are.”
“When I had my birthday party here, which was the same people, I was not [cited for a violation],” Salman explained. “The only days I’m being violated are Sundays.”
In 2010, the city officially pressed criminal charges against Salman. Due to exhaustion of all legal remedies, he was forced to self-surrender to the Maricopa County Jail on June 17th, 2012, which was to be followed by probation.
Salman and his wife recorded a video just before he reported to jail to explain the situation and to express the couple’s frustration with Phoenix officials.
“I’m going to have to report to jail tonight….to go serve 60 days in jail because I worship on my property at my home with my family and friends as a private use. And that’s wrong,” he said. “To the City of Phoenix, I’m a criminal, and I deserve to go to jail.”
However, after arriving at the Maricopa County Jail, because of a technicality in that computers at the facility were not recognizing the code that he had purportedly violated, he was released three hours later.
This past Thursday, City Judge Sally Gaines rescheduled Salman’s sentence for July 9th. Assistant City Prosecutor John Tutelman, who characterized Salman as a “rebel,” also asked the court to revoke his probation and convert it into a 2 1/2 year jail sentence since he continues to hold worship gatherings on his property despite court orders. Unless a federal court intervenes, Salman will be forced to serve time in jail beginning next month. His probation revocation hearing is set for late July.
An explanatory video was uploaded following his return from court.
Salman is a father of six and also operates Mighty Mike’s Burgers, as well as a credit card processing company. He says that the criminal proceedings have taken a toll on him and his family.
“It’s been very stressful, especially for my [children] and my wife,” he told Christian News Network. “I see her getting tore up from the inside.”
Nonetheless, Salman states that he is going to continue to fight.
“I’m not going to stop,” he explained. “I have a right to gather on my property just like everyone else does.”
“We ask our brothers and sisters in the Lord to just pray for us,” Salman added. “The world is so vocal. We have one neighbor that is so vocal against us. He doesn’t like Christians. We just need Christians on the other side.”