By Sarah Fenske
Published on June 16, 2009 at 3:19pm
Last Thursday, a swarm of police officers descended on Michael Salman's northwest Phoenix home. Armed officers herded Salman, his wife Suzanne, their five young daughters, and their visiting friends into the living room ó and kept them under watch for 90 minutes while other city officials searched the grounds.
And here's the crazy part: The officials weren't looking for drugs, weapons, or stolen property.
They were looking for evidence that Michael and Suzanne Salman are holding church services in their backyard.
Sounds unbelievable, right? The First Amendment assures us that the government cannot interfere with the "free exercise" of religion. Surely, it's none of the city's business who worships where, or when.
But that's exactly what the city of Phoenix was investigating last week.
One of the visitors in the Salmans' home that day, Sam Atallah, came here from Syria for graduate school and now has a Christian ministry focusing on his fellow Middle Easterners. Atallah couldn't believe his own eyes: Seven or eight police officers held the family and their guests at bay. When Suzanne had to leave the room to change her baby's diaper, she was escorted by a cop. When Michael Salman initially demurred at producing a key to an outbuilding, the cops threatened to break down the door.
All because they're holding church services?
"If you tell somebody in the Middle East that this happened, they can't believe you," Atallah says. "We came to America to get away from this kind of persecution."
Even some officers on the scene seemed uncomfortable.
"In the 12 years I've been a police officer, I've never been on an administrative search warrant like this, okay?" one officer told the Salmans that day, according to a videotape of the incident. "They had to take it to this level, which I've never seen before."
Police Detective James Holmes was on the scene. He tells me the police were summoned by zoning officials to help serve an administrative warrant. Typically, the city would take that step only if it had previously been denied access by the homeowner, he says.
But Salman says he never turned city officials away from his home ó a fact that a city spokesman ultimately confirmed. That makes the warrant, and the police presence, reek of overreach.
As is usually the case, the backstory is more complicated. After talking to city officials, touring the property, and looking at records, it's pretty clear that this is not just an issue of religious freedom. It may well be that ó but it's also an issue of municipal zoning, and the Salmans' attempts to manipulate it.
Indeed, your perspective on this story shifts dramatically depending on whether you take a micro or macro view.
To the city, the question is simply whether the Salmans are holding services in a building that's permitted only for residential use. The services, they say, hold a genuine safety risk.
But for the Salmans, the questions are as big as the Constitution itself.
What exactly is a church? And what is a group of people who meet once a week to celebrate their faith? Should the government really be in the business of delineating?
After all, if it's okay to have friends over every week for game night, why isn't it okay to have them over to worship God?
For the past year and a half, the Salmans jumped through the hoops required by City Hall for construction of a 2,000-square-foot outbuilding in their backyard. It took engineers, architects, and roughly $80,000, but the city ultimately signed off on everything.
The problem is that the Salmans told the city they planned to use the building as a personal "game room." Instead, they're using it as a church.
They won't come right out and say that, of course. But when I visited the Salmans' home in the quiet North Glen Square neighborhood last Friday, a day after the unannounced police visit, the couple acknowledged that they are using the building for worship.
In fact, it was clear to me that worship is the building's only use. The interior looks like any number of the Valley's small, Bible-based churches, from the altar to the neat rows of blue-quilted chairs to the reproduction of da Vinci's The Last Supper on the wall.
"Look, I'm inviting my friends and my family to do the most important thing in my life ó which is worship God," Suzanne Salman says. "What's the difference between that, and if I had them over for movie night? Is the city now going to come to the neighbors and say you can't have a movie night every week?"
To anyone not familiar with evangelical churches, that might sound stupid. Of course a group of people that meets regularly to worship is, by definition, a church.
But to anyone familiar with evangelical churches, and their myriad home-based groups, the argument is bit more complicated. After all, a "church" in the old-school Biblical sense isn't a building; it's people. Often, those people do their best worshipping outside a formal structure, in loosely organized home groups.
That is exactly the kind of meeting we can't allow the government to interfere with.
When I was a kid, my parents held a Bible study in their home. Every Monday night for more than 20 years, our narrow suburban street was packed with cars on both sides. The worship itself was no quiet undertaking: My parents' brand of born-again Christianity leaned heavily toward the euphoric, with guitars and tambourines and shouts of exhortation to Jesus. I used to walk my younger brother in his stroller and marvel at how far we had to go to escape the sounds of fervent worship blasting from our living room.
My parents were lucky, I realize now, in that our neighbors were incredibly tolerant. We never got so much as a phone call asking them to turn down the music. In fact, when the parking situation got really awful, the spinster two doors down actually volunteered her driveway for the overflow.
But what if we'd had different neighbors? What if they hadn't put up with our noisy worship? I cringe to think that we could've been visited by cops armed with a search warrant, insisting that if we drew 75 people every week, we would qualify as a church under municipal ordinances. It seems absurd.
In reality, the Salmans' enterprise appears to have far less impact on their neighborhood than my folks' Bible studies used to. The Salmans' house is behind a gate, and Michael and Suzanne tell me they draw a dozen cars, maximum. They all park behind the gate.
Frankly, I think the trouble at the Salmans' is less about the impact of a dozen cars every week and more about the relationship between Michael Salman and his neighbors.
I wrote a cover story more than a year ago about the dispute between Salman and his neighbors. At the time, Salman publicly spoke of building a big church in his backyard; he was thinking 4,200 square feet. Petrified about the impact that such a big project could have on property values, the neighbors did whatever they could to stop him, from lobbying City Hall to hiring a lawyer.
The neighbors dug up Michael Salman's criminal history ó he did time for a drive-by shooting before finding Christ while in prison ó and accused him of preaching at a neighborhood park with a megaphone, aiming the speakers toward their homes. He fired back by producing witnesses who attested that Councilman Claude Mattox had branded him a "religious zealot" at a neighborhood meeting. It was bad blood all around.
Things have only gotten worse.
In April, a pickup belonging to one of Salman's most vocal critics was set on fire. It's being investigated as arson ó and, as Salman acknowledges, he's been accused by some neighbors as a "person of interest." (For the record, Salman says he had nothing to do with the blaze; the Phoenix Fire Department didn't return a call seeking comment.)
Last week, two neighbors asked for restraining orders in Maricopa County Superior Court, saying Salman has been harassing them. Salman plans to dispute those charges in court.
The neighborhood's ire clearly triggered the police visit last week. As Detective Holmes points out, the outbuilding is impossible to see from the road, but the Salmans say the neighbors have been videotaping people as they show up for Sunday services.
The neighbors surely aren't happy that, even after they effectively blocked construction of a real church, they still have a congregation in their midst. And even if their response to the weekly gatherings is an overreaction, they may well have municipal law on their side.
And that's because the Salmans have been trying to have it both ways.
Last year, when the Salmans realized that they couldn't meet the city's commercial requirements for a church building, they went ahead with constructing the game room. They tell me they were planning all along to use it for religious activity. But they weren't exactly straightforward about their intentions.
Interestingly, both city officials and Michael Salman referred me to the same set of e-mails to buttress their positions. In the e-mails, sent in April just before the city signed off on final construction, city officials pointedly explained that the building can't be used for church assembly.
"A church assembly use is not allowable under City Code unless the site is developed as a commercial project," a staffer wrote.
Salman responded, agreeing that the building "will not be used for a public place of worship. It is for private use. Yes, we are not planning to convert the 2,000-square-foot building into a public place of worship and do understand that if we want a public place of worship that we will have to adhere to the building codes and such."
Sounds clear-cut, right?
Not to Salman. He may have assured the city he wasn't building a public place of worship, but his emphasis was on public.
"This is for private, personal use," Salman says. "We're not going to put signs up there with worship service times. We don't advertise anywhere. We have gatherings at our house. That's not against the law."
That's a distinction the city isn't buying.
City spokesman David J. Ramirez says the issue isn't the nature of the assemblies. It's safety. There are no sprinklers in the outbuilding and no emergency exits, yet the room features 145 chairs. "It's a hazard to pack 145 people into a space like that," Ramirez says.
So last Thursday, no fewer than seven officers showed up at the Salman home, escorting a group of zoning officers with an administrative warrant. While the Salmans have yet to be cited for a crime, the cops did leave behind a "notice of code violation." It reiterates that the outbuilding may be used only for residential use.
Indeed, for all the protestations that they aren't hosting church services, the Salmans are, at best, walking an incredibly fine line. Unlike most small, home-based fellowships, they've got all the trappings of a church. A sign on their gate announces "Harvest Christian Community Church." Advertisements for the fellowship's Web site, www.hcfaz.org
, pepper the family's two vans. And, of course, Salman goes by "Pastor."
The main difference between their group and any other start-up church is the Salmans' insistence that they chose to be "private."
Does that matter? Should it? Really, what can the city do? Bad enough that they sent a half-dozen officers last week to do the work of city bureaucrats. Shut down a religious service, and they will have triggered all sorts of constitutional issues.
The Salmans aren't stupid. They realize this. So despite the officers' arrival on Thursday, on Sunday, the Salmans invited some friends and family into their "game room."
They didn't play poker or pool or Pictionary. Instead, they worshipped God, exactly as they'd planned.
The police were nowhere in sight. Not this Sunday, anyway.
Next Sunday is anyone's guess.