Home Church Pastor Jailed 60 Days for '67 Zoning Violations'

For Greater Glory arrived this summer only to be forgotten among the superheroes, arrow-shooting girls, and magic Mikes. The film portrayed a true story of 1926 Mexico ruled by a government deeply hostile to the Catholic Church. The Mexican president instructed federal forces to expel priests, seize church land, and even force Christians to deny their faith or face execution. The Christians were treated as criminals and told to recant their religion by saying, “Death to Christ the King, long live the federal government.”

Those who saw the film were shocked that they never learned about this unjust period of history. Many will be even more horrified to hear that a similar story is happening right now in the United States. While we have yet to see executions of the devout, we are seeing church property seizures and now the imprisonment of pastors.

In Phoenix, Arizona, this week, a pastor was thrown in jail for 60 days by the local government. His crime is hosting a weekly, private Bible study in his own home. The government argues the man has a church on his property and must therefore correct 67 zoning violations. And right at this very moment a father of six kids sits in a Phoenix prison for teaching the Bible on his own property.

Michael Salman, the imprisoned pastor, and his wife started hosting Bible studies in their home in 2002. They later moved into their current neighborhood where they were, according to the Salmans, informed by authorities that they could not host religious gatherings in their house.

They had to have a separate meeting area. The Salmans built on their own property “a 2,000-square-foot game room adjacent to their home on their 1.5-acre property.” Their plan was to use this building weekly for worship and Bible study. The Phoenix authorities have declared the building a church. They originally fined Salman $180,000 for not following church building codes and have now put him in prison for noncompliance.

The Salmans have argued that their weekly gathering is not a church. It is simply a Bible study. Authorities raided the property in 2009 (yes, you read that right: they raided the Salmans’ home property) and cited Michael Salman for the church building code violations. Salman claims that since their services are not promoted to the public — they are a private gathering of friends and family — it is not a church in the traditional sense.

The Salmans appear to have been hosting what is called a “house church.” All over the world, especially in countries where there is Christian persecution, churches begin in homes. In China, for example, every church must register with the government so they can be controlled or face persecution. As a result, countless home churches try to avoid being found out by the government. When discovered, they are disbanded and the pastor is imprisoned. Sound familiar?

Many theological issues arise when one tries to defined what is and isn’t a church. For example, Christians believe the people are a church and not the building. And who decides when a Bible study is an official church gathering? And who decides when that gathering on private property is declared a church in need of 67 zoning regulations? We now know.

Regardless of what Christians believe, the government gets to declare when private property becomes a church building and must therefore follow multiple regulations that would not be necessary for a non-religious gathering.

In one interview, Pastor Salman made this position clear:

If I had people coming to my home on a regular basis for poker night or Monday Night Football, it would be permitted. But when someone says to us we are not allowed to gather because of religious purposes, that is when you have discrimination.

I spoke with Olivia Streight, a house church member in a similar situation about 45 minutes outside of Phoenix. She told me:

We have a Bible study every week at our house and we have at least 40 people there. I know I don’t live in the same city he does. I just think the more we depend on the government/state officials to handle our situations, the more they are going to step in and one day we are not going to have any choice in anything.

The key question is, even if this is a house church, does the government have the right to hold it to the same code and zoning laws as big-building churches? Following such rules would force untold small-house churches to close down all over the country. And if government has this right, why do only religious gatherings receive such government oversight and not other secular gatherings like game nights or home-based business gatherings?

Charles Campbell, a director of Church Planting in southern Illinois, has grown more and more familiar with this issue. He said:

These types of laws are basically unconstitutional. Having said that, they are the law for now in some places and this guy may end up going to jail for what he believes. He won’t be the first or last. I do believe the church will continue to face these types of challenges going forward in our society. We should expect it, quite honestly.

The government is now making it very clear that our freedom of religion can now be trumped by things like zoning laws, ObamaCare regulations, and tax codes.

J. Christian Adams, former DOJ attorney and author of the eye-opening Injustice: Exposing the Racial Agenda of the Obama Justice Department, has written extensively on the deterioration of religious freedom for Christians in America. When I asked him for his take on the pastor’s imprisonment, he gave a chilling response:

Christians freely exercising their faith inside the privacy of their homes is apparently not a civil right worth protecting to Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez and his boss Eric Holder. We have entered a disturbing age when Christians must hide from their government to discuss the Bible like they did in Gottwald’s Czechoslovakia or Emporer Valerian’s Rome. The Free Exercise Clause trumps local zoning laws.

John Whitehead, Salman’s lawyer, works for The Rutherford Institute. Whitehead admits that many house churches may break zoning laws, but questions if this is the just way to handle such issues:

 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?

In For Greater Glory a key character comes to an important realization. One film critic summarized this moment by saying the “the state soon has him considering that religious liberty is the first and most important freedom of all as all others spring from it.”

Will we make the same realization or will we continue to let our religious freedoms be cast in prison?

Join the conversation as a VIP Member