Ever since the Phoenix New Times News broke the story in their June 16th issue of the June 11 raid by the Phoenix Police Department on the Harvest Christian Fellowship Community Church, Pastor Salman and his congregation believe that there has been a continual stream of misconceptions and misrepresentations that needs to be set straight, and they are thankful that Freedom’s Phoenix has allowed them the opportunity to do so.
First make no mistake. That was a full blown raid that took place that the Phoenix News reported with these words,
This Thursday, a swarm of police officers descended on (Pastor) 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 — and kept them under watch for 90 minutes while other city officials searched the grounds. 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?
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 Salman’s 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.
This raid was done under an Administrative Warrant authorized by Municipal Judge E. Jeffrey which was signed by a Phoenix Police Officer.
And yet we have people, even so called conservatives defending such actions on the part of the police. There is no defense in America for such unprecedented actions and unless the American people literally shout their disapproval it is only going to grow far worse. Following is Pastor Salman’s account of the controversy between his family and the city of Phoenix.
In 2005 the Salmans purchased the property in question so that it would accommodate their family and friends for Bible studies. We might interject that the purchase price is totally incidental and has nothing to do with the issue at hand. Pastor Salman said, “We mentioned the purchase of the property to the city of Phoenix and they said that we couldn’t use our home for a Bible study but had to convert all of the property into church property and make it a commercial entity. From that day on, the city caused us nothing but a nightmare, simply because we wanted to practice our faith in our home with our family and friends. They kept pressing us to do things that were excessive, unreasonable and impossible.”
Pastor Salman said that the city did a car count in front of their house, which turned out to be 2500 per day for a total of 17,500 per week. However, because their Bible study would bring around 40 cars per week, the city demanded that they put 400 feet of curbs, gutters, sidewalks, and pavement in front of the house. They also wanted the Salmans to improve the front of the undeveloped street which included the confiscation of 9,000 square feet of their land.
They fought the city of Phoenix on the land issue and won, but lost the improvement issue. Altogether it cost the Salmans $80,000 for this foolishness. Now mind you, it would have cost them nothing to have friends over for Bible studies if they had not been sucker punched by the city fathers, who weasled these “improvements” out of the them on the basis that they led the Salmans to believe that they were involved in a commercial “business” enterprise, i.e. operating a church, Harvest Christian Community Fellowship Church.
Not being an expert in the doctrine of church and state issues, Pastor Salman was obviously perplexed and really didn’t know what to do or where to turn for advice, but he knew that he couldn’t accept the city of Phoenix’s definition of a church as a commercial enterprise. Pastor Salman asserts, “From that point, our purpose and objectives changed. We believed that a traditional church setting, which, according to the city was commercial, was not Biblical and was not what we believed, and was not what we wanted to do. So we then abandoned the project and bought more property. No one bothered us, including any agencies of city government, for approximately one year.”
After that, Pastor Salman decided to add a detached building on to his property. He continued, “So we built a 2000 square foot building and began to have our meetings there. Those coming to the property parked off of the street on 3 inches of 1/4 inch dust-proof crushed gravel parking. The property is able to hold at least 50 cars. Currently we have a maximum of 12-15 cars when we have our Bible studies.
“Our building is safe. It has two doors, one on the North side and one on the South. It has eight 4’x6’ windows. There are no interior walls or posts, it is just one large open room. There is no plumbing or gas, and it is very safe.
“Furthermore, we have never had any noise complaints from our services, nor traffic or parking complaints. We are approximately 100 feet from the nearest house on the left of us, approximately 300 feet from the nearest on the right, and around 1000 feet from the nearest neighbor behind us.
“However, on June 11th without notice the city decided that it needed a search warrant to find out what it already knew, that is, we were having church services on our property. So a Police Officer went before a Municipal Judge and got an Administrative Warrant to carry out a drug type raid on our property and the rest of the story is known.”
Pastor Salman continues, “On June 25th I decided to go to the city and request a copy of the affidavit that requested the search warrant. The affidavit and the sworn statement were all lies. I also went to the public records department and requested all records from the Neighborhood Services and Developmental Services. Of course I had to wait for that. I then went to the police department and requested all of the calls made against the property to prove that there has never been any noise, traffic, or parking complaints due to our meetings. There had been none filed by anyone. However on June 26th, the city retaliated against me and filed about 100 charges against me, many being repeats on different dates, these charges include things such as: UNSAFE BLDG/EQUIPMENT VIOLATIONS, ETC.”
Pastor Salman also recently found out some interesting information about the Phoenix city code pertaining to this issue. Please note the following:
International Building Code 303.1 - Assembly Group A: Occupancy includes use of a building or structure for the gathering together of persons for purposes such as civic, social or religious functions, recreation, food or drink - A room or space used for assembly purposes by less than 50 persons and accessory to another occupancy shall be included as a part of that occupancy.
In that less than fifty people attend the services at the church on a regular basis, the Salmans are in compliance even under the present statute, so there should have never been an administrative warrant issued to begin with.
Some have said that Pastor Salman and his congregation got into trouble because they were operating as an Arizona non profit organization and a 501(c)(3) entity approved by the IRS. Even though Pastor Salman’s situation is somewhat confusing he would like to clear up the misunderstandings as to how his ministry is set up.
First, he is the Pastor of the Harvest Fellowship Christian Community Church. When it was originally organized, he did seek incorporation as an Arizona non-profit organization and operated as such until the State of Arizona administratively dissolved the corporation in May of 2009. The church never sought 501(c)(3) status from the IRS, but churches are automatically considered exempt as long as they obey the rules pertaining to exempt organizations and they may receive tax exempt gifts on that basis.
However Pastor Salman has another organization which is also an Arizona non profit corporation and has sought 501(c)(3) status from the IRS, and that is an organization called the Harvest Christian Fellowship. It is the vehicle that he uses to operate and finance his prison ministry. It operates separately from the church.
But it needs to be made clear that the property in question does not belong to either Harvest Fellowship Christian Church or Harvest Christian Fellowship but to Pastor and Mrs. Michael Salman. They have the God-given right to have Bible studies in their home or on their property without zoning, building permits or improvements of any kind. They also have the right to have church services in their home, in their yard or in a building that they have built for that purpose.
If a common law crime, including disturbing the peace, is committed by the Salmans or anyone else on the property, then they should be subject to the same penalties under the law that anyone else is subject to. But the entire group should not be penalized for the actions of the guilty party or parties.
However, the Salmans and their guests have guarantees under the Arizona State Constitution and the fourth amendment to the U.S. Constitution against unreasonable searches and seizures, besides the First Amendment that guarantees them the right not only to worship but the right to speech and assembly without harassment or fear. I’m sorry that some nosy neighbors, along with some conservatives and liberals haven’t got this figured out yet. They better get it figured out though because they very well may be the object of the next raid.