You’re persecuting me by not giving me special privileges
Ok, that title’s a little over the top. But not as much as you’d think. Via Alethian Worldview we have this tale of a pastor named Michael Salman in Phoenix, Arizona who’s been ordered to stop holding bible study meetings in his home, and may face jail time for ignoring this order.
Well, I’ve read the Examiner article that describes this as religious persecution, and I’ve read the fact sheet that the city of Phoenix published about this case. After consideration, I think the “Martyr Envy” tag on the AW post sums this up nicely. Seriously, it sounds like all the guy has to do is rent out a space for his “bible studies” and all his troubles disappear.
You see, the city government is saying this case is about public safety, building and fire codes and zoning restrictions, while Salman’s defenders are calling this an attack on religious freedom. It’s difficult to see how the two can collide, unless your religion specifically rejects fire exits. The city contends that Salman is perfectly free to hold whatever services he likes, even in his home, provided that he follows the rules for assembly, and the specific rules which are being applied to him are those for churches.
Here is the city’s reasoning for treating Salman’s ministry as a church. I’ll be referring back to this quote a lot, so take note!
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.
Certainly sounds like something that should be treated as a church for ordinance purposes to me. I googled that name and found this website, Harvest Christian Fellowship, run by Pastor Michael Salman of Phoenix, AZ, which I’m going to assume is the same man because all the names line up and the photos look like the same guy.
The only thing that gives his case a whisper of credibility to me is that he found a lawyer willing to back him up, one John Whitehead. Since that lawyer’s own words not only fail to bolster his case, but from my point of view actually hurt it, that really isn’t saying much. Here’s what Whitehead had to say about the city’s page, linked above:
Oh, the facts as they see it? I don’t see them make reference to the two dated letters sent to my client in September of 2007. One, which is dated September 20, 2007 states “You may not hold bible studies in your home until appropriate permits are obtained.”
Ok, I’m pretty sure the city is referring to those letters with this sentence on their timeline:
In the Fall of 2007, Mr. Salman is notified several times by the City that he needs to obtain the proper permits and approvals before holding church services on his property.
But seriously, so what? How in the world is this supposed to help your case? Why, when given a public platform to present your client’s side of the story, would you choose to say something so completely irrelevant rather than, I don’t know, try to address the substance of the city’s claims?
The only interpretation I can come up with that isn’t totally meaningless is that he’s trying to suggest the city demands permits for all bible study in all homes, that the particular choice of words in that letter was not dependent on context. Particularly not the context in which it was addressing one man who had consistently ignored city ordinance with his public assemblies, which he called “bible study”.
Here’s something else Attorney Whitehead had to say:
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.
This strikes me as dishonest. The city government has clearly already established criteria to determine what is and isn’t a church for legal purposes. There’s no apparent reason to believe that this definition is being used in any way other than determining which laws and ordinances apply. If that’s a violation of the Establishment Clause then so is having separate rules for secular or religious charities and non-profits. The city’s reasons for using this are pretty clearly stated above, and if true not only make “church” the appropriate category for legal purposes, but also any useful definition of the word.
Whitehead seems to be claiming that Salman’s ministry is not a church, which sounds like an outright stupid move. Let’s ignore for a moment that saying his ministry which meets twice a week for bible study in a building with a dais and pews is not a church is laughable. Look again at that quote from the city, “claimed a church status for tax exemption purposes on his property.” If that’s true then it seems to me that claiming not to be a church at this point is also an admission of tax fraud. Do you really want to bring the IRS into this fight, too? I mean, at least the city government will leave you alone if you just rent a space for your regular meetings, and probably pay some fines or court costs or something.
Something I’ve seen more and more lately is people speaking as though the First Amendment means that churches or religions are above the law, and then crying “persecution!” when they are expected to follow the same rules as everyone else. That seems to be exactly what’s happening here, Salman’s defenders, even his own lawyer, offer no reason to believe otherwise.
Finally, because it can’t be ignored, some people have pointed out Romans 13 from the bible, which basically says that all authority is granted by God, so submit to it. It’s a scary thing to tell people, since it boils down to “might makes right”, but it is the kind of thing a Christian ministry should be expected to answer, I suppose. Here’s what the lawyer had to say about it:
Lawful law yes, but I don’t think God intended on us to obey unlawful ordinances. If so, He must be pleased with Hitler huh? Look at Jesus, Paul and Peter in the bible. All were persecuted for disobeying the law.
Yeah. The sad part here is that Romans 13 also contains the phrase “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The reason the government got involved in this was because Salman was such a bad neighbor, people were complaining about his twice weekly bible studies clogging up the streets.