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Two sides to every story

This looked like an interesting First Amendment story: “Attorney for Pastor jailed in Arizona speaks out” (capitalization as in the original).

Last week we brought you a story about Michael Salman, a Pastor in Arizona who surrendered himself to authorities to face two months in prison. His crime? Holding bible studies in his home. Mr. Salman faced a judge today and things don’t appear to be getting any better. The prosecution is pushing for a harsher punishment for his alleged crime.

The attorney is John Whitehead, of the Rutherford Institute. Hmm, that’s inauspicious. Here’s his statement regarding his client’s case.

Mr. Salman was found guilty of one count of violating probation for holding bible studies of more than 12 people. Where she got the number baffles me. Maybe she got it from Jesus and the Disciples, but in that case it would be 13…

The danger of this case is the government is trying to establish what is and isn’t a church. When it does that they are overstepping the boundary. This violates the very foundation of that Amendment and the Establishment Clause.

Ok, a government trying to imprison people just for holding Bible studies in their private home. Whitehead is right, this is a flagrant and serious violation of the First Amendment. Or is it?

Let’s look at the government’s side of the story.

The Michael Salman court case is about building safety.  Building and safety codes are in-place to protect the safety and welfare of all of our residents.  Some of the relevant facts in this case include:

  • A house of worship is allowed in any zoning district in the City of Phoenix
  • The case is about the building that is used for regular assembly does not meet construction and fire code requirements for assembly
  • All houses of worship in the City of Phoenix must conform to the same codes

Mr. Salman had regular gatherings of up to 80 people.   He held services twice a week and collected a tithe at the services.  The building that he held services in had a dais and chairs were aligned in a pew formation.   He held himself out as a being a church through the media (Harvest Christian Church) and claimed a church status for tax exemption purposes on his property.

Due to the regular, reoccurring high vehicular traffic in this quiet residential neighborhood, neighbors repeatedly complained about the public assembly occurring on his property.  Because of the multiple, reoccurring complaints, the City investigated the activity and discovered numerous building code violations primarily related to fire safety standards.   Once apprised of these violations, the City could be held liable for not enforcing safety code requirements in the event anyone was injured on the premises.   Prior to commencement of prosecution, Mr. Salman was asked, repeatedly, to comply with the safety codes of the City.   He chose to ignore these requests for voluntary compliance prior to the commencement of any proceedings.

I think they must be missing the point. The First Amendment isn’t there to protect religious freedom. The First Amendment is there to ensure that Christians never need to obey any laws they don’t like. Isn’t that right, Mr. Whitehead?

I don’t think God intended on us to obey unlawful ordinances. If so, He must be pleased with Hitler huh?

Well as long as you’re being reasonable about it. Because reasonable fire safety standards arejust like genocide.