Neighbor Hired PI to Spy on Jailed Man’s Backyard Meetings Following City’s Home Bible Studies Ban

A recent fact sheet released by attorneys representing a Phoenix man who is in jail after being accused of operating a church on his private property outlines that a neighbor hired a private investigator to spy out the family’s weekly gatherings. The meetings were moved to a building in their back yard after they were informed by the city that they could not host Bible studies in their living room.

The Rutherford Institute (TRI) states that it released the fact sheet to counter claims against Michael Salman that were publicized by the City of Phoenix, and to “set the facts straight.”

In the sheet, The Rutherford Institute reveals that a neighbor of the Salman’s sought to investigate exactly what was taking place on the property. The private investigator, who was hired by the neighbor’s attorney, allegedly went to the Salman’s house under the guise that he was a friend of one of Salman’s friends who attends the private gatherings in the 2,000 square foot building.

“The only time persons unknown to the Salmans attended the Bible study was when a private investigator, under the pretext that he was a friend of another family involved in the Bible study, attended the meeting,” the fact sheet states.

Phoenix City Prosecutor Aaron Carreon-Ainsa confirmed to Christian News Network that a private investigator was indeed hired to spy out the private worship gatherings in the Salman’s back yard. He explained that the investigator, who he identified as “a stranger to the Salman’s,” came prepared with a recording device and taped the gatherings, and that he “attended services on more than one date.” He did not, however, outline as The Rutherford Institute did that the man claimed to be a friend of one of Salman’s friends, so that he could participate.

“The neighbors were very concerned,” Carreon-Ainsa stated.

“We have one neighbor that is so vocal against us. He doesn’t like Christians,” Michael Salman told Christian News Network on June 30th.

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Carreon-Ainsa said that the private investigator testified in court, and his testimony was used by the prosecution to allege that the Salman’s weekly gatherings were public.

“This being the first time Suzanne Salman had been confronted with an attendee unknown to her, she allowed him and his putative wife and grandchild to participate for the sake of demonstrating hospitality. Based on this lie, the investigator has since falsely claimed that his attendance proves the meetings were open to the public,” the fact sheet explains.

The Rutherford Institute contends that just because one man used false information to break into the meetings, it does not mean that the general public may attend the gatherings. The Salman’s assert that the meetings are private, and are not run like a church, where all may attend.

The City of Phoenix and Mayor Greg Stanton have both released statements claiming that Michael Salman registered as a church, and that he must therefore abide by commercial codes as if he was a public facility. Carreon-Ainsa also stated that he was concerned that Salman was collecting tithes from his family and friends, which he called “charging people [for attending].”

“The Phoenix City Prosecutor has briefed me on this issue and explained to me that Harvest Christian Fellowship Community Church, … has sought church status for tax exemption purposes,” stated Mayor Stanton on a note posted to Facebook. “[T]he church never asked for nor received an appropriate building permit. The permit would require an inspection of the building to ensure it complies with life safety requirements. This is the same requirement as every other church in our city.”

However, The Rutherford Institute, outlines in the fact sheet that the Salman’s registered their prison ministry with the government, not the private building constructed in their back yard, and that Michael Salman had requested tax exemption for his residence as he is a licensed minister. It is not uncommon for home churches nationwide to register under a given name.

“The Salmans have operated a charitable organization for over ten years. Their ministry involves visiting those in prison to comfort them, pray with them and teach them about the Bible. The existence of the registered 501(c) (3) organization facilitates their being allowed into prisons for these purposes,” it explained. “Michael Salman is an ordained minister, and as such, under Arizona law, his residence qualifies for a tax exemption as a ‘parsonage’—not as a church.”

It also contends that the Salman’s did obtain a permit, but could not have called the building a “church” on the application, as it was not a church in the formal sense of the word.

“It would have been misleading for the Salmans to have described it as a ‘church,’ as that term is most commonly used to refer to places of worship that are open to all comers. The building was permitted as an accessory building to the residence for private use,” the fact sheet outlines.

The Rutherford Institute also explains that the Salman’s had received several letters from the City of Phoenix, stating that they could not have Bible studies in their living room without treating it as a public facility. They would have to install handicapped bathrooms and handicapped parking, sprinkler systems and a plethora of other items in their home, even though none of their friends and family are handicapped. Any type of regular religious gatherings at all would be defined by the city as a “church” and would require an official church permit, followed by making church upgrades.

“Councilman Mattox has brought your request to our attention regarding conducting Bible studies at your residence. … Until the appropriate permits and approvals have been obtained, church related activities, including Bible studies, are not allowed,” wrote Assistant Development Services Director Robert J. Goodhue, now retired.

Michael Salman built the structure in his back yard in 2009, two years after this letter was issued.

“Our city cherishes the First Amendment which requires the city to not discriminate against any expression of faith, but also ensures that one church is not treated differently than any other,” Mayor Stanton states.

However, The Rutherford Institute says that the case raises serious concern as it blurs the lines between residential and public property.

“A line must be drawn between uses that are ‘residential’ and those that are commercial or public in nature,” the organization states. “It is an affront to the religious freedom of every American for the City to conclude that religious worship—even where it includes invited friends and family members—is separate from activities that are appropriately undertaken in a family’s home. In fact, the Construction Code itself states that homes and their accessory structures are to be governed by the International Residential Code—not the Construction Code under which Salman was convicted.”

Michael Salman remains imprisoned in an outdoor tent city jail in Maricopa County, which is armed with stun fences, k-9 units and patrol deputies.

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