By Joseph DeCaro, Worthy News Correspondent
PHOENIX, ARIZONA (Worthy News)-- The Rutherford Institute has come to the defense of a Phoenix man fined $12,000 and serving a 60-day sentence for using his private residence to host a weekly Bible study, allegedly violating city building codes.
Institute attorneys are challenging the sentence based on the First Amendment right to religious freedom and assembly, as well as the city’s claim that holding Bible studies, or any form of religious worship at a residence, requires the owner to comply with local laws pertaining to a public church.
Michael and Suzanne Salman have hosted Bible studies for family and friends in their home since 2005, eventually building a 2,000-square-foot structure in their backyard for the weekly studies. As an ordained minister, under Arizona law Michael's residence gives him a tax exemption as a parsonage, but not a church.
When a neighbor complained about the Salmans "parsonage" in 2007, Phoenix officials subjected the family to zoning and building requirements that were only intended for public and commerical buildings, even though the Salman's studies were only intended for family and friends. From February through September, the Salmans received three letters informing them that they were not permitted to hold Bible studies in their home as it violated the local zoning ordinance and construction code.
In June 2009, police officers and city inspectors raided the Salmans’ property, charging them with 67 code violations after determining that their weekly Bible studies constituted a church.
A church, however, has always been composed of its congregation, not its brick and mortar; therefore, according to the Institute, any gathering of two or more Christians can be called a "church," but if the First Amendment still protects religious exercise, it must not allow government officials to restrict that exercise to only buildings that comply with construction codes meant for commercial enterprises; these codes may be applied to public churches, but not private ones.
For instance, if the City of Phoenix can apply its building codes to residential property, then homeschooling could be classified under "educational" use and social gatherings as assemblies,
all requiring the residence to conform to rigorous construction requirements, including the installation of sprinkler systems, handicap-accessible restrooms, braille signs, and so on.
Further, the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibits the government from determining if and when a family and its guests have become sufficiently "religious" in order to transform residential land use into formal religious land use; such determinations should be made by the number of vehicles, noise level and whether or not the use is open to the general public.