By Amy Silverman
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By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
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By Michael Lacey
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When I was a kid, my parents held a Bible study in their home. Every Monday night for more than 20 years, our narrow suburban street was packed with cars on both sides. The worship itself was no quiet undertaking: My parents' brand of born-again Christianity leaned heavily toward the euphoric, with guitars and tambourines and shouts of exhortation to Jesus. I used to walk my younger brother in his stroller and marvel at how far we had to go to escape the sounds of fervent worship blasting from our living room.
My parents were lucky, I realize now, in that our neighbors were incredibly tolerant. We never got so much as a phone call asking them to turn down the music. In fact, when the parking situation got really awful, the spinster two doors down actually volunteered her driveway for the overflow.
But what if we'd had different neighbors? What if they hadn't put up with our noisy worship? I cringe to think that we could've been visited by cops armed with a search warrant, insisting that if we drew 75 people every week, we would qualify as a church under municipal ordinances. It seems absurd.
In reality, the Salmans' enterprise appears to have far less impact on their neighborhood than my folks' Bible studies used to. The Salmans' house is behind a gate, and Michael and Suzanne tell me they draw a dozen cars, maximum. They all park behind the gate.
Frankly, I think the trouble at the Salmans' is less about the impact of a dozen cars every week and more about the relationship between Michael Salman and his neighbors.
I wrote a cover story more than a year ago about the dispute between Salman and his neighbors. At the time, Salman publicly spoke of building a big church in his backyard; he was thinking 4,200 square feet. Petrified about the impact that such a big project could have on property values, the neighbors did whatever they could to stop him, from lobbying City Hall to hiring a lawyer.
The neighbors dug up Michael Salman's criminal history — he did time for a drive-by shooting before finding Christ while in prison — and accused him of preaching at a neighborhood park with a megaphone, aiming the speakers toward their homes. He fired back by producing witnesses who attested that Councilman Claude Mattox had branded him a "religious zealot" at a neighborhood meeting. It was bad blood all around.
Things have only gotten worse.
In April, a pickup belonging to one of Salman's most vocal critics was set on fire. It's being investigated as arson — and, as Salman acknowledges, he's been accused by some neighbors as a "person of interest." (For the record, Salman says he had nothing to do with the blaze; the Phoenix Fire Department didn't return a call seeking comment.)
Last week, two neighbors asked for restraining orders in Maricopa County Superior Court, saying Salman has been harassing them. Salman plans to dispute those charges in court.
The neighborhood's ire clearly triggered the police visit last week. As Detective Holmes points out, the outbuilding is impossible to see from the road, but the Salmans say the neighbors have been videotaping people as they show up for Sunday services.
The neighbors surely aren't happy that, even after they effectively blocked construction of a real church, they still have a congregation in their midst. And even if their response to the weekly gatherings is an overreaction, they may well have municipal law on their side.
And that's because the Salmans have been trying to have it both ways.
Last year, when the Salmans realized that they couldn't meet the city's commercial requirements for a church building, they went ahead with constructing the game room. They tell me they were planning all along to use it for religious activity. But they weren't exactly straightforward about their intentions.
Interestingly, both city officials and Michael Salman referred me to the same set of e-mails to buttress their positions. In the e-mails, sent in April just before the city signed off on final construction, city officials pointedly explained that the building can't be used for church assembly.
"A church assembly use is not allowable under City Code unless the site is developed as a commercial project," a staffer wrote.
Salman responded, agreeing that the building "will not be used for a public place of worship. It is for private use. Yes, we are not planning to convert the 2,000-square-foot building into a public place of worship and do understand that if we want a public place of worship that we will have to adhere to the building codes and such."
Sounds clear-cut, right?
Not to Salman. He may have assured the city he wasn't building a public place of worship, but his emphasis was on public.
"This is for private, personal use," Salman says. "We're not going to put signs up there with worship service times. We don't advertise anywhere. We have gatherings at our house. That's not against the law."
That's a distinction the city isn't buying.
City spokesman David J. Ramirez says the issue isn't the nature of the assemblies. It's safety. There are no sprinklers in the outbuilding and no emergency exits, yet the room features 145 chairs. "It's a hazard to pack 145 people into a space like that," Ramirez says.