Upon moving into his $700,000 home, Salmon and his wife, Suzanne, were upfront about their faith and informed the neighbors that they would be having Sunday services which they promised would not disturb the neighbors. However, the Salmon’s neighbors allege that they promised Sunday-only services quickly turned into boisterous basketball games, loud music, the creation of a day care center and overflow parking which frequently blocked many of their neighbor’s driveways on a nightly basis. Clearly, in the minds of Salmon’s neighbors, he and his church had become a nuisance to the peace and well-being of the neighborhood.
Salman’s neighbors complained that their home values could diminish as a result of the church and its activities. At an association meeting, Salman addressed the home value issue by stating that the neighborhood should be willing to “sacrifice a little” since they would make money on the resale of their homes anyway. Predictably, this did not sit well with the neighbors.
Earlier this month, the Phoenix police raided the Salman residence seeking evidence that he had been holding religious services in his backyard. When I read Greg Dixon’s piece Prayer Police Strike Again – This Time It’s Phoenix (http://www.freedomsphoenix.com/Opinion/052156-2009-06-21-prayer-police-strike-again-this-time-its-phoenix.htm) and the preceding New Times, Sarah Fenske article (http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/2008-01-17/news/michael-salman-wants-to-build-a-church-in-his-backyard-his-neighbors-aren-t-buying-it/1 ), I was initially outraged that Pastor Michael Salmon’s family and guests were held at bay by the Phoenix police as they searched for evidence that Salmon was illegally holding religious services on his private property. As Mr. Dixon reported, this appeared to be another case of government sponsored harassment of Christians similar to what recently took place in San Diego. Yet, as I looked more deeply into this case, I discovered that there was another side to this story, a side that is not being as well reported.
It is very clear that Pastor Michael Salman’s neighbors do not like him and they do not care for his church because both are perceived by the neighborhood as a major nuisance. Salman’s neighbors are quick to tell anyone who will listen that they are concerned that he is an ex-felon. Salman served time for a drive-by shooting during a time in his life when he was a gang member. Some are willing to give Pastor Salman a free pass on this past transgression as they recognize that this could be a powerful part of his religious testimony. However, his neighbors will quickly point out that they are increasingly concerned because they discovered that even after Salman became a pastor, he was arrested and booked on a misdemeanor for impersonating a police officer. According to court records, a young girl from Salman's church was allegedly “involved” with an older boy. Reportedly, at the parents' request, Salmon went to the boy's house, impersonated a cop with the intent of frightening the boy into leaving the girl alone. The biblical scripture which encourages such pastoral intervention momentarily escapes me. However, the mud slinging against Salman smells like character assassination by his neighbors and has very little to do with the issues of religious expression versus the neighbors right to peace and quiet. Further, as concerning as Salman’s past actions might be to some, this still does not give any agency of the government the legal right to storm a house with the intent of punishing American citizens for peacefully worshipping their God.
Mudslinging and hyperbole aside, I found that this case is much more complex than a simple persecution involving one’s religious rights to worship as one pleases. It is clear that Michael Salmon and his Harvest Christian Community Church, whether he meant to or not, embarked upon a path which served to antagonize and disrupt the lives of the residents of an upscale residential neighborhood in North Phoenix.
The issue came to a head when the Phoenix zoning department informed the police that they were refused admittance to the Salmon residence/church. It now appears that Pastor Salman was conducting services within a structure that had been erected in his backyard. Reportedly, the structure did not have a permit to be built for the purpose of religious worship and contained none of the safety features required by law such as fire retardant sprinklers. Granted, this does have the appearance of Big Brother having too much time on their hands. However, Salman’s apparent civil disobedience did open the legal door for the police to become involved, and become involved, they did.
The police raid in question came in response to Salman’s perceived lack of compliance with the zoning regulations and his overt lack of cooperation with city zoning officials and his defiance in continuing to hold religious services without making the ordered changes in the place of worship. There can be little question that the raid was indeed an excessive show of force, but it does not appear to have been physically abusive. The Phoenix Police, investigating alleged zoning violations, clearly had no right to detain the Salman guests which they did. The family, however, was monitored during the investigation for the safety of the police, and rightfully so. In the increasingly common police approach to justice which seems to be characterized by a “let’s kill a fly with a sledgehammer approach,” the number of police participating and the length of the raid (almost two hours) was an unnecessary waste of public resources for the size and scope of the alleged improprieties.
The American public needs to be very concerned about zoning regulations which limit one’s right to engage in the practice of their faith. Certainly, the former Soviet Union legislated many churches out of existence through the use of zoning. Yet, there is a balance which must be struck between the free exercise of one’s religion and the disruption to private lives that the Salman’s church may have caused. Salmon’s neighbors reportedly did not object to 20-25 people attending a bible study. They did vehemently did object to the loss of property values and the constant disruption to their lives by what they perceived to be infringement upon the previous serenity of their neighborhood.
The City of Phoenix attempted to find the middle ground in this issue by demanding that Salman build a parking spot in his backyard for every three seats in his church. This regulation is consistent with requirements placed on other private and public entities. The city seemed to be genuinely trying to work with Salman and his congregation. However, Salman refused to meet with his councilman and neighbors in order to work out a solution. Salman did not do much to alleviate the concerns of his neighbors when his next door neighbor found it necessary to obtain a restraining order against him after an angry encounter between the two while Salmon was on the neighbor’s property.
Salman has proudly proclaimed that the United States Justice Department will sue, on his behalf, if the city breaks up anymore religious meetings on his property. Following the raid, the ball is clearly in Salman’s court and the issue appears to be headed for a legal showdown. It is becoming increasingly clear that Salman may very well get the legal help that he will need in order to challenge the City of Phoenix in court. Perhaps, in a strange twist of fate, the City of Phoenix may inadvertently end up funding the construction of a church on Salman’s property.
The Salman case could very well become a test case to resolve several legal issues involving the relationship between a neighborhood and a church. Do churches have a duty to be a good neighbor and obey the land use regulations of the community in which they operate? Who decides what a good neighbor is and what that definition would entail? This is where the issue becomes very murky. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act (RLUIPA) purports to protect the rights of churches to be built and practice their religion in residential neighborhoods. To be determined is an answer to the question of whether or not the Salman’s can operate their church, with total disregard for the rights of their neighbors. Clearly, a judge will ultimately decide this issue. In this era of judge made law, all of us may lose a lot more when this issue is finally adjudicated than either the Salman or his neighbors.
Nothing is ever quite as simple as it is sometimes made out to be.