Sacred Space: Is Arizona Persecuting Home Bible Studies?

Sacred Space: Is Arizona Persecuting Home Bible Studies? July 13, 2012

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.

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