In light of the recent incarceration of Michael Salman, Christians nationwide are expressing their concerns as to whether they may be forced to adhere to commercial building codes if they wish to utilize their home for regular gatherings, including worship meetings and Bible studies.
Salman was recently jailed for operating a “church” on the family’s 4.6 acre residential property without conforming to commercial code, and is currently serving a 60-day sentence.
Aaron Carreon-Ainsa, Phoenix City Prosecutor, told Christian News Network that Salman’s charges only pertained to the 2,000-square foot building in Salman’s back yard and not gatherings in his living room. However, correspondence from the City of Phoenix to Mr. Salman, written before he moved his gatherings to the building in his back yard, indicate that he was not allowed to hold Bible studies in his home either.
“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,” one letter from the city stated, which Salman presented in an online video. Another letter from Assistant Development Services Director Robert J. Goodhue, now retired, outlined, “…Bible studies are not allowed in the residence… The simple and direct answer [as to why] is that the Bible study use requires a change of occupancy.”
The International Code Council
The letters cite the Phoenix building code, which was written by the International Code Council (ICC). The city adopted the 2006 code as many municipalities nationwide have done also.
ICC is an organization that creates unified, singular codes for municipalities to follow. It’s president is William D. Dupter, the Deputy County Administrator for Community Development of the County of Chesterfield, Virginia. Seventeen other individuals across the country, from Rhode Island to Texas and Utah comprise its leadership.
The ICC website outlines, “Most U.S. cities, counties and states choose the International Codes, building safety codes developed by the International Code Council. The International Codes also serve as the basis for construction of federal properties around the world, and as a reference for many nations outside the United States.”
The main code that was used against Salman was from the ICC’s “Use and Occupancy” code, which defines “the use of a building or structure, or a portion thereof, for the gathering of persons for purposes such as civic, social or religious functions,” as either a business or an assembly. Religious gatherings that consist of under 50 people are classified as a “Group B occupancy” or “a business group,” and must be subject to business building code regulations. Religious gatherings that consist of 50 or more people and/or are held in a facility that is over 750 square feet is considered a “Group A occupancy” or an “assembly group” and must adhere to assembly regulations.
“This is not just a code in Phoenix,” explained Tom Wandrie, the Deputy Director of the Development Division in Phoenix. “This is a code across the nation.”
“[And], not only in our country, but in other countries also,” he added.
Wandrie outlined that according to the code, occasional gatherings in one’s home are permissible, but not on a “regular basis.”
“If you’re conducting it with people not in the family unit, you’re getting into a commercial [operation],” he stated. “Religious worship is an A-3 occupancy.”
“It’s not going to be residential anymore,” Manny Bahraini from the Phoenix Planning and Development Department stated. “A lot of things kick in,” adding that the code at that point goes in “five hundred different directions.”
Wandrie explained that depending on whether the home gathering classified as a business or assembly, the owner of the residence would be mandated to follow regulations imposed by the ICC, such as installing fire sprinkling systems, affixing exit signs around doorways, constructing handicapped parking spaces and making bathrooms at the home handicap accessible. A plethora of other regulations apply as well, depending on the category that the property falls under.
He stated that if a property is used regularly for anything “beyond eating and sleeping use,” it could be considered a commercial establishment according to ICC regulations.
“If there’s a complaint…we will investigate,” Wandrie explained.
Furthermore, code officials outlined that if a person lived in a residential zone, and they were meeting regularly with others for prayer or Bible study at a residence, it would be a violation of the applicable zoning ordinances, since the activity would then be considered to be commercial. Commercial activities are not allowed in residential zones.
According to online information, the entirety of Ohio, New Jersey, Virginia and Kentucky, among other states, all have enacted the “Use and Occupancy” code of the International Code Council. Additionally, the organization not only creates regulations relating to public use facilities, but also private residences.
What is Acceptable?
“I suppose it comes down to how many people there are,” Phoenix prosecutor Aaron Carreon-Ainsa stated. He agreed with Wandrie that the regularity of the meetings is a factor in the matter as well.
He pointed to the order released earlier this year from Judge Sally Gaines to Michael Salman, which stated that Salman could have “no further assemblies (more than 12 people) … until [the property is] brought into compliance with all Phoenix City Codes…”. He claims that Salman had up to 80 people on the several-acre property when there were baptisms taking place.
“He can have 12 people there the way it is right now,” Carreon-Ainsa explained. “There are aspects that are going to be different in each situation.”
He states that he does not know where Judge Gaines came up with the number of twelve.
While Carreon-Ainsa deferred to Wandrie on matters pertaining to the interpretation of the code, stating that Wandrie was the “expert” on the topic, he did provide an example.
Carreon-Ainsa stated that if presidential candidate Mitt Romney were to have family gatherings at home with his five children, that would be permissible. “But, if the neighbors come over for Sunday dinner [each week], and now there are 25-30, maybe we [have a safety issue]. That may very well be.”
Questions also arise with some as to what would be done in instances where very large families are involved, such as the Duggar family, which has 19 children, especially if they wished to meet regularly with their friends the Bates, who also have 19 children.
Carreon-Ainsa ultimately told Christian News Network, “In the abstract, we can talk forever and not reach a conclusion. … The main concern is the safety of the people.”
John Whitehead of The Rutherford Institute, whose legal organization is representing Salman remarked, “There are numerous violations in everyone’s home. … We want people to be in safe buildings, [but] if they’re going to do this to him, then start sweeping other homes [for violations].”
When asked if regulations such as these will affect not only home churches, but also city churches who have regular separate small group gatherings at the homes of its members, he answered in the affirmative.
“Everyone is going to be affected,” he told Christian News Network. “They can force you to spend a lot of money you don’t have.”
Whitehead said the only entities that won’t mind the regulations are “big churches with a lot of money.”
“And they’re not saying a thing,” he commented.
In Silver Spring, Maryland, The Gazette newspaper outlined from code officer Susan Scala-Demby that “when there is a regular, formal service held inside a house — no matter the number of people involved— the house is considered a church,” and that it therefore requires an occupancy permit, which costs between $400 and $900. Hemal Mustafa of the city’s building construction division added that the homeowners would then also be required to make upgrades to the house to bring it into alignment with the National Fire Protection Association’s fire code, the state’s accessibility standards, an international mechanical code and national electrical code. The paper advises, “But without the permit, any church service held in a house is illegal.”
Whitehead stated that while many Christians may point to Romans 13 as justification to follow any and every government mandate, he disagrees, and calls the claims “platitudes.” He says that regulations are lawful “as long as they’re following the Constitution.”
“Don’t they read what Peter said, ‘We ought to obey God rather than men?'” he asked. “Remember, the apostle Paul — his epistles were written from jail cells. People aren’t reading their Bibles.”
“Hitler would have loved the interpretation that some people are putting on Romans 13,” he added. “Thank God the Jews stood against that.”
Whitehead stated that the legal organization works with Chinese Christians as well, and that a lot of churches in the country are getting forced underground.
“It’s a very similar mindset,” he said. “It’s not good over there.”
Zoning and Religious Liberty
While the adopted building codes have raised concerns for home churches and small group meetings in Phoenix and beyond, small Bible studies and small churches nationwide are finding it difficult to meet without zoning opposition as well.
In San Juan Capistrano, California a couple had been fined $300 for violating the city’s zoning ordinance, which prohibits “religious, fraternal or non-profit [home] gatherings” of 4 or more people without a permit. However, due to the public outcry over the case, the city council changed its zoning code to remove penalties against those who host home Bible studies without government permission.
In Rockdale County, Georgia, New Generation Christian Church recently filed a federal lawsuit over a city zoning ordinance that mandates all churches to possess at least three acres of property, stating, “A place of worship shall be located on a minimum of three acres dedicated solely for the place of worship or on its own recorded lot of at least three acres in size.” Land that the small church cannot afford. For now, its members are meeting in the basement of a jewelry store, which still does not satisfy the mandates of the law.
These are not isolated incidents.
In Prince George’s County, Maryland, the county council enacted an ordinance that requires those meeting at home for Bible studies or worship to be subjected to an extensive zoning process. The process mandates noise and traffic studies, which can take up to one year to complete and cost up to $10,000.
The blog, “The Religious Marketplace,” also reports, “[I]n Denver, a woman holding a Bible study in her own home was presented with a ‘cease-and-desist’ order from the local zoning commission, which found her in violation of a city ordinance which only permits one ‘prayer meeting’ at any private residence per month. A man in Bedford County, Virginia received a notice of violation because he hosted worship services of the ‘Cowboy Church’ in his own barn, ostensibly because his agricultural property is not zoned for religious use. In Palm Bay, Florida, the Church of Iron Oak was the target of a malicious slander campaign which resulted in the local zoning board issuing citations against their holding prayer meetings in their own homes.”
The Early Church
Whitehead recently pointed out during an interview on Fox News that Christians first met in homes. Other historical researchers and writers agree, stating that there was no such thing as a church “building” for hundreds of years after Jesus’ death — that the Church was rather the name given to the followers of Christ.
“If you had asked, ‘Where is the church?’ in any important city of the ancient world where Christianity had penetrated in the first century, you would have been directed to a group of worshiping people gathered in a house,” writes Walter Oetting. “There was no special building or other tangible wealth with which to associate ‘church,’ only people.”
“Whether we are considering the smaller gatherings of only some Christians in a city, or the larger meetings involving the whole Christian population, it is in the home of one of the members that the ‘ekklesia’ is held — for example in the ‘upper room,'” wrote Robert Bank in the book Paul’s Idea of Community. “Not until the third century do we have evidence of special buildings being constructed for Christian gatherings.”
Andy Zoppelt of TheRealChurch.com points to 1 Corinthians 14:26, which denotes an informal gathering where Christians speak among themselves and encourage one another: “When ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation.”
He described the home gatherings of the early church as they might have been conducted.
“As the saints leave their homes and go to the home of another brother and sister, they carry a sense of expectancy and excitement. … The neighbors, in curiosity, visit and are struck by their own need for Him and witness the love of God in the midst of the assembly. They hear of hundreds of homes open in their city to the building of the saints together. Everyone is special, everyone is being used and all care for one another.”