Phoenix Pastor Jailed For Holding Church Services Without Proper

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Phoenix Pastor Jailed For Holding Church Services Without Proper Permits

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(Huffington Post) - Michael Salman, a Phoenix, Ariz., pastor, is currently serving a 60-day prison sentence, the Arizona Republic reports.

But why exactly he's in jail has been the subject of much discussion and confusion.

The pastor and his supporters say that he was jailed for holding weekly bible study sessions with family and friends, and argue that his constitutional rights have been violated.

But city officials in Phoenix say the "case is about building safety" and he was jailed for violating building, fire and zoning codes.

The battle between Salman and his neighbors and the city of Phoenix has been years in the making, but his current jail term stems from how he used a 2,000 square-foot building on his property.

According to the city, his church, the Harvest Christian Fellowship Community Church, received a permit to build a "game room" there in 2008.

The permit prohibited using the building as a church, business or assembly.

Nevertheless, the city cited Salman for holding worship services there in 2009 and 2010.

According to the city, Salman regularly had gatherings of as many as 80 people, and the noise and traffic from the gatherings prompted regular complaints from neighbors.

In 2010, he was found guilty of 67 Class 1 misdemeanors for code violations, such as not having lighted emergency exits, fire doors or sprinklers, in the "game room."

He appealed his conviction, but the court upheld them, and he began his jail term on July 9.

The case has garnered national attention, with supporters of Salman arguing that his civil liberties were violated. A commentary on Fox News has nearly 8,000 Facebook "likes" and almost 800 comments.

John W. Whitehead, a civil liberties lawyer who is also the founder of the Rutherford Institute, recently took on Salman's case.

"What happened to Michael Salman -- the fact that his home was raided by police and that he is now in jail in Tent City -- illustrates the absurdity of government officials prosecuting individuals for engaging in religious activity on their private property," Whitehead, who also blogs for HuffPost, said in a statement posted on the institute's website on Monday. "That Michael Salman and his family and friends are not allowed to gather in private to study the Bible goes against every founding principle of the United States of America."

But the city says that it's not about religion.

"The real issue isn't the content of what goes on in the building," John Tutelman, deputy city prosecutor, told The Huffington Post. "It's the assembly itself. And he told us with all the evidence that it was a church."

For their part, and despite the guilty verdict, the Salmans maintain that they never held open worships.

"Our home has never been open to the public," Salman says in a video uploaded to YouTube before he went to jail. "We've never advertised. We've never had signage," his wife, Suzanne adds. "It has always been strictly our friends and our family."

But Tutelman told HuffPost that the city has evidence to the contrary, including pictures of signage as well as pamphlets advertising regular services and tithings. Furthering the city's case, the Arizona Republic reports that the Maricopa County Assessor's Office classified the Salmans' property was a church in 2008, so he and his wife have not paid taxes on their property since then.

"The real issue is an assembly of a number of people in a structure that was not designed to comply with the city codes," Tutelman told HuffPost. "If he set up a sign for a movie theater, we'd be prosecuting him for holding an assembly if it didn't comply with the city codes."

While there's no shortage of commentary online, support has failed to materialize in the form of financial contributions. A ChipIn fund created by the Christian Defense Fund raised just $900 from 17 contributors, and a Change.org petition started by Salman had fewer than 8,000 signatures on Monday.

Still, the case has ignited passions across the spectrum, and Tutelman said that in his nearly 26 years in the prosecutor's office, he's "never seen a case that had this much notoriety before."

For an in-depth report on the conflict between Salman and his neighbors, click over to the 2008 story in the Phoenix New Times. To hear from the prosecutor, check out the detailed account in the Arizona Republic.

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