But just because the zoning allows churches doesn't mean, of course, that anyone in Phoenix can just throw up a church in his backyard. Salman learned that the hard way.

In February 2007, Salman told some neighbors he had a permit from City Hall to start construction. He broke ground soon thereafter.

As it turned out, though, Salman didn't have a permit to build a church. His permit gave him the right to build a garage-like structure, a shell of a building without electricity or plumbing. When neighbors complained that Salman's intentions were far different from what he'd officially indicated, City Hall shut down construction. Salman would have to submit detailed construction plans to the city, and go through formal review, before building anything.

Giulio Sciorio
The house at the center of a neighborhood holy war.
Giulio Sciorio
The house at the center of a neighborhood holy war.

Before the pastor could begin the process, things got ugly.

When Salman hosted a Passover dinner in the shed already in his backyard, one neighbor called the Fire Department, noting that the shed didn't have a certificate of occupancy or such safety measures as sprinklers. When the Fire Department checked it out, they determined the building wasn't overcrowded and left, records show.

So the neighbor called again. Again, firefighters were dispatched to the scene, and Salman agreed that his guests would leave.

One month later, when 28 church members gathered in the shed for Bible study, the Fire Department showed up and handed them a letter from City Hall. Until the new church was built, it said, they were not permitted to hold meetings on the site.

Although Salman protested that they were in no way a nuisance, that they weren't parking on the street or public areas, the group's members were sent home.

"People wouldn't have objected if he had 20 people coming over for Bible study," Andrea Julius says. "He was doing that previously, and nobody objected. But when he started this expansion plan, well, everybody became concerned."

If Michael Salman had wanted to open a coffee shop on North 31st Avenue, he wouldn't have a chance of getting the city's permission. The neighborhood is zoned strictly for residences.

But the Phoenix city code, like many zoning codes, makes an exception for churches. They're permitted in residential neighborhoods like Salman's. Unlike many cities across the United States, Phoenix doesn't require churches to get a "conditional use" permit. Those permits, typically issued by city councils, require quality-of-life issues to be addressed and public officials to weigh in.

In Phoenix, churches simply have to go through the same reviews as new-home construction. It's a bureaucratic, not political, process. Not a simple as throwing up a shed, but still much less complicated than getting permission to build a strip mall.

In some ways, churches are even easier to build than new homes, thanks to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act, or RLUIPA. Passed unanimously by Congress in 2000 and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, the law bars communities from enforcing any land-use regulation that puts a "substantial burden" on the expression of religious belief.

Eric Rassbach is the national litigation director for the Becket Fund, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that helps churches exercise their rights under the federal law. Congress, he said, enacted RLUIPA because it believed that municipalities were too eager to listen to neighborhoods — and were needlessly blocking religious communities from building or gathering.

"This was a problem across the country," he says. "Local government was not respecting people's civil rights." The problem, Rassbach says, was particularly acute for congregations like Salman's that lack the organizational resources to fight back. Now, he says, cities "need to take into account the religious activity of the citizenry when they're deciding how people can use their land."

Most importantly for Salman's predicament, RLUIPA requires that communities treat religious assembly the same as secular activities.

Alan C. Weinstein is the director of the Law & Public Policy Program at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in Cleveland. He's assisted many city planners as they've dealt with the federal law and its ramifications for their planning processes.

He says the city's decision to break up Bible studies at Salman's house is clearly problematic.

"Say I just bought a 63-inch TV, and every Sunday at 11 a.m., I have 20 people over my house to worship at the church of the NFL," Weinstein says. "There are probably football fans who do that every Sunday. And if they don't stop that, they can't stop a Bible study that's meeting once a week, either."

But, as Weinstein admits, new construction projects are tricky. For all its specificity, the new law "hasn't left a tremendous amount of clarity," he says. "Part of that, in a land-use context, is that every project is unique. It's just a messy area of the law."

Woe to any city that makes a wrong move. RLUIPA allows for churches to sue in federal court if they're denied building permits — and not only can they win damages, but also attorney's fees. Weinstein cites a case in Florida in which a town was recently forced to pay $2 million to a church it had stopped from construction.

"The stakes are pretty high," he says. "Anytime something comes up that has to do with RLUIPA, flashing red lights should go off at City Hall. You just have to be extraordinarily careful."

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