Sacred Space: Is Arizona Persecuting Home Bible Studies?

Every Friday in Sacred Space, Brad Williams explores the place of popular culture in the local church.

I was eating breakfast Wednesday morning with a church member at a local diner. The large LCD television was set to FOX news, and the headline that I glimpsed as I was draining the last dregs of my coffee was, “Pastor Arrested for Preaching!” I was surprised and immediately intrigued.

The day before, I had heard of Pastor Michael Salman’s arrest via this article I had come across. I felt that there had to be more to the story to this, because if not, I think that this would be a scary precedent for anyone who loves religious liberty. So that day, I did a little more digging and found this post. Now that made more sense to me; this was a matter of being out of violation for building code, not about the freedom to have a Bible Study meet in one’s home.

Now, go back with me to the little diner where I am eating breakfast with my friend. I already knew, after minimal internet research, that the story of Michale Salman’s story was not one of simple persecution for preaching. I already knew that he had build a 2,000 square foot facility behind his house for the purpose of a “game room” that was really being used for what looks like a church meeting. It has chairs and a pulpit. It looks like the inside of small church, and it was registered as such in 2007.  I also knew, from my experience in my home town, that you cannot simply build a church building anywhere you’d like. Before our own church finalized a purchase of property, we had to go before the city council and get an exemption because the property we wanted was zoned R-1, which means residential zone. Religious institutions and businesses are not allowed to build in that area without a permit. We applied for permit, and the city allowed us to continue with the purchase and gave us permission to build there.

I’m not a trained reporter. I am a web-surfer with a modicum of common sense. If I could figure out that this was a zoning war, why couldn’t FOX news and the rest of the media? There at breakfast, I knew that I would need to have something to say about this to the folks at church. They would inevitably run across this sensational story and be upset by it. So here is how I hope to react to this, and how the churches here react to this sort of thing in the future.

First, zoning laws are a good thing. Some may get indignant that they cannot do whatever they want with their own property, but to those folks I say, “Welcome to the Home Owners Association, pal!” People are concerned about their property values and their homes. They do not want a junk yard next door. Most folks do not want a mosque next door to their house playing the call to prayer on loudspeakers at dawn and dusk, and most folks do not want to deal with their street being jammed up two days a week with parking because someone built a church in a neighborhood that wasn’t designed for that kind of traffic or parking.

So, for the love of neighbor, churches ought to consider such things. If you want to reach your neighbor for Christ, blocking his driveway twice a week is not a good start. And if love of neighbor doesn’t compel the church to do right, then submission to the governing authorities ought to do the trick. The city isn’t saying that there can be no churches, it is simply saying where they can be built. They aren’t infringing on liberty if there are areas of free access for religious institutions.

Finally, this story is not about city persecution of an in-home Bible study. This is an example of a guy who had two years to figure something out and didn’t. Further, this is an example of how the media can spin things for whatever purpose they like. If the media had made this story about whether or not such zoning laws are an infringement upon religious liberties, I’d be glad to have that conversation. But to promote it as a simple matter of persecution is irresponsible journalism. I hope the churches will be more discerning about such stories in the future.

About Brad Williams

Brad is the pastor of a Baptist church in a small town in Alabama. Brad has a lovely wife, two children, two dogs, a cat, a turtle, and five bee hives. Besides the incredible fact that he managed to persuade his wife to marry him, he is proud that he served six years in the Army National Guard, managed to graduate college with an English Lit. degree, graduate seminary, and finish the original Bard's Tale as a youngster by making maps on graph paper.

  • a mommy

    Thank you!! Im so tired of seeing this posted all over the place w/ no real consideration to the facts involved (which really aren’t difficult to find) We christians look like such idiots when we just jump on the band wagon of this stuff and pass it around with little to no thought.

  • http://www.diannaeanderson.net Dianna

    I only saw about the amount of one tweet concerning this issue, and even I was able to recognize it was about zoning laws (the one I saw was something like “pastor arrested for home church.”). The fact that people are turning this into a religious liberty issue is downright amazing.

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Dianna,

    Yep. My only small caveat is that “zoning laws” could conceivably turn into a religious liberty issue if they are too restrictive. That’s a debate worth having, if only to educate folks on zoning laws. But to frame it as a direct attack on churches or preaching is infuriating to me because it breaks dialogue and cheapens real persecution.

  • http://philippians314.squarespace.com Kim Shay

    I wondered what the brouhaha was all about. I figured someone would get to the bottom of it. Thanks, Brad, for clarifying.

  • http://www.quixoticiconoclast.blogspot.com Chris Todd

    Good Story Brad. I followed this guy back to 2008 when he moved into the neighborhood to build a Church and managed to make enemies of just about everyone there.

    In an interview I read, it came to the surface that he actually has no funds construct a building, and a membership of about 15 people. He’s hoping to sue the city and win enough money to put up the building.

  • Scott cunningham

    Brad, you win best of the Internet this week. Way to go! It is unbelievably heart warming and encouraging to see you being circumspect and critical and going the extra mile to figure out what was going on. We should all be inspired by your example to not take the easy way out and resist jumping to every conclusion. Thanks man. Love to you and your peeps.

  • Fred Smith

    You are quite right–the news media sensationalized the story. They do this often, for the purpose of generating higher ratings.

    There is a concern–even if zoning laws “officially” are cast so as to be fair to all churches, we live in a culture where Evangelical Christians are regarded as bad people, along with Muslims. In some communities a situation could arise where evangelical churches never get needed zoning variances but mainline churches always do. While the law would be fair, its implementation would be discriminatory. How to solve this problem, I don’t know. Zoning laws lead to opportunities for discrimination. Lack of them lead to opportunities for neighborhoods to be mistreated. What do you do?


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