By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Last Thursday, a swarm of police officers descended on Michael Salman's northwest Phoenix home. Armed officers herded Salman, his wife Suzanne, their five young daughters, and their visiting friends into the living room — and kept them under watch for 90 minutes while other city officials searched the grounds.
And here's the crazy part: The officials weren't looking for drugs, weapons, or stolen property.
They were looking for evidence that Michael and Suzanne Salman are holding church services in their backyard.
Sounds unbelievable, right? The First Amendment assures us that the government cannot interfere with the "free exercise" of religion. Surely, it's none of the city's business who worships where, or when.
But that's exactly what the city of Phoenix was investigating last week.
One of the visitors in the Salmans' home that day, Sam Atallah, came here from Syria for graduate school and now has a Christian ministry focusing on his fellow Middle Easterners. Atallah couldn't believe his own eyes: Seven or eight police officers held the family and their guests at bay. When Suzanne had to leave the room to change her baby's diaper, she was escorted by a cop. When Michael Salman initially demurred at producing a key to an outbuilding, the cops threatened to break down the door.
All because they're holding church services?
"If you tell somebody in the Middle East that this happened, they can't believe you," Atallah says. "We came to America to get away from this kind of persecution."
Even some officers on the scene seemed uncomfortable.
"In the 12 years I've been a police officer, I've never been on an administrative search warrant like this, okay?" one officer told the Salmans that day, according to a videotape of the incident. "They had to take it to this level, which I've never seen before."
Police Detective James Holmes was on the scene. He tells me the police were summoned by zoning officials to help serve an administrative warrant. Typically, the city would take that step only if it had previously been denied access by the homeowner, he says.
But Salman says he never turned city officials away from his home — a fact that a city spokesman ultimately confirmed. That makes the warrant, and the police presence, reek of overreach.
As is usually the case, the backstory is more complicated. After talking to city officials, touring the property, and looking at records, it's pretty clear that this is not just an issue of religious freedom. It may well be that — but it's also an issue of municipal zoning, and the Salmans' attempts to manipulate it.
Indeed, your perspective on this story shifts dramatically depending on whether you take a micro or macro view.
To the city, the question is simply whether the Salmans are holding services in a building that's permitted only for residential use. The services, they say, hold a genuine safety risk.
But for the Salmans, the questions are as big as the Constitution itself.
What exactly is a church? And what is a group of people who meet once a week to celebrate their faith? Should the government really be in the business of delineating?
After all, if it's okay to have friends over every week for game night, why isn't it okay to have them over to worship God?
For the past year and a half, the Salmans jumped through the hoops required by City Hall for construction of a 2,000-square-foot outbuilding in their backyard. It took engineers, architects, and roughly $80,000, but the city ultimately signed off on everything.
The problem is that the Salmans told the city they planned to use the building as a personal "game room." Instead, they're using it as a church.
They won't come right out and say that, of course. But when I visited the Salmans' home in the quiet North Glen Square neighborhood last Friday, a day after the unannounced police visit, the couple acknowledged that they are using the building for worship.
In fact, it was clear to me that worship is the building's only use. The interior looks like any number of the Valley's small, Bible-based churches, from the altar to the neat rows of blue-quilted chairs to the reproduction of da Vinci's The Last Supper on the wall.
"Look, I'm inviting my friends and my family to do the most important thing in my life — which is worship God," Suzanne Salman says. "What's the difference between that, and if I had them over for movie night? Is the city now going to come to the neighbors and say you can't have a movie night every week?"
To anyone not familiar with evangelical churches, that might sound stupid. Of course a group of people that meets regularly to worship is, by definition, a church.
But to anyone familiar with evangelical churches, and their myriad home-based groups, the argument is bit more complicated. After all, a "church" in the old-school Biblical sense isn't a building; it's people. Often, those people do their best worshipping outside a formal structure, in loosely organized home groups.
That is exactly the kind of meeting we can't allow the government to interfere with.