[UPDATE 7/12: Phoenix city officials release "fact sheet" and timeline regarding Michael Salman's case.]
Arizona preacher Michael Salman was sentenced to jail for building what the City of Phoenix claims he has been representing as a church on his home property without securing the proper permits. Salman claims the building is not a church and is simply for private Bible study gatherings.
Salman's case, which started in 2007, reached its conclusion this week when a Phoenix court ruled that he was guilty of more than five dozen violations in constructing the building and sentenced him to 60 days in jail and three years of probation.
The preacher, whose ministry is called Harvest Christian Fellowship, claims he was exercising his religious liberty by worshiping at home on his private property, and that his gatherings were no different than when people hold Super Bowl or Christmas parties.
"You're taking a man out of society and sticking him in jail for worshiping at his home," he told a local news station.
The issue with Salman's case was a building in his backyard, which the City said he constructed without abiding by legal codes and safety standards. The building, reportedly used for weekly gatherings of about 30 to 40 people, has a pulpit and chairs. The building, located on his 1.5-acre property, is about 2,000 square feet and was previously labeled a "game room" by Salman but organized on the inside for worship services.
Salman, who describes himself as a "Pastor of the Christian faith" and was ordained in 1996 by Church of God in Christ elders, has spoken out on the case in several videos published to his YouTube Channel.
In the most recent video, uploaded on June 17, Salman appears with his wife, Suzanne Salman, explaining the history of the case, claiming that the City of Phoenix has been "harassing" him since 2007.
Salman reveals in the video that he had to report to the county jail this past Sunday to begin serving his 60-day sentence.
"To the City of Phoenix, I am a criminal and I deserve to go to jail. So we are fighting, we are fighting folks not only for us, but for you," Salman says in the video.
He adds, "I'm glad that I'm not going to jail because I'm a criminal like a thief or a murderer, but that I'm a criminal because I'm a Christian. ... And I am blessed and honored to do this for Christ because my heart is right and because my wife's heart is right."
A California couple experienced a similar situation last year when the City of San Juan Capistrano fined them for holding Bible studies and religious gatherings in their home. Neighbors had complained that the meetings often attracted dozens of people, dozens of vehicles and too much noise. Chuck and Stephanie Fromm were fined $300 for what city officials said was a violation of a municipal code that makes it illegal for religious, fraternal or nonprofit" organizations in residential neighborhoods to hold such gatherings without a conditional-use permit.
Salman says his Harvest Christian Fellowship is "dedicated in preaching the Gospel in the streets, helping the needy and strengthening the saints."
In an effort to shore up support, the Salmans have launched an online petition on Change.org directed to the "Mayor and City Council" of Phoenix. So far, only 93 visitors have signed the petition, which needs 100,000 supporters.
"This is a message that religious practice and the right to assemble for such is a protected right," reads the description accompanying the petition. "Michael Salman should not be in jail for worshiping on his private property with family and friends. FREE MICHAEL SALMAN!!"