Michael Salman wants to build a church in his backyard. His neighbors aren't buying it | News | Phoenix | Phoenix New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Phoenix, Arizona

Michael Salman wants to build a church in his backyard. His neighbors aren't buying it

The man in the YouTube video is so passionate, he sounds almost angry. His face is just inches from the camera as he expounds for nearly six minutes, barely pausing for breath the entire time. He doesn't consult notes, even when he's quoting Scripture. He knows the verses by heart...
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The man in the YouTube video is so passionate, he sounds almost angry. His face is just inches from the camera as he expounds for nearly six minutes, barely pausing for breath the entire time. He doesn't consult notes, even when he's quoting Scripture.

He knows the verses by heart.

"It is very important that we deny ourselves, and pick up the cross, and follow Jesus," the man says, staring intently into cyberspace. "The problem is, America is being so fulfilled and so . . . fat! . . . in their luxuries and indulgences of what is going on, and people are being so consumed with their own world, and their own personal agenda, that they are finding themselves lazy pigs that are not getting up and doing what God calls them to do!"

"Maybe," he says, a few thoughts later, "I may be called a religious fanatic in the eyes of many. But what does Christ command us to do but be zealous for God?"

The man calls himself "Kryptologos," and he's posted 70 brief sermons on YouTube, talking about everything from whether Christians should be tolerant (not overly) to whether evolution is real (emphatically not).

His name is Michael Salman, he is the pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship, and he's got his northwest Phoenix neighborhood in an uproar.

Not because of those YouTube sermons, although they've been a source of fascination for the neighbors who've Googled Salman — and the words "religious fanatic" have, in fact, been whispered about him.

And not because of his criminal record, though the neighbors have pored over the 15-year-old police report that led to his conviction.

The real problem is that Salman is intent on building a church in his own backyard — and not just any church, but a 4,200-square-foot building that will sit only a few feet from his neighbor's property line.

This country was settled by people who wanted the freedom to practice their faith as they saw fit. But there's a reason the Pilgrims had to get out of Europe, and it's the same reason Michael Salman is encountering so much resistance from his neighborhood.

Whether we want to admit it or not, zealots are seldom the most popular guys on the block. And there are a whole lot of people who don't want to sacrifice their property values to allow their neighbor the right to worship as he pleases — especially when his idea of worship involves amplifiers, several services each week, and carload after carload of congregants.

But as angry as the neighbors are about Michael Salman's building plans, you only have to watch YouTube to know this is a guy who's never going to give up willingly. He's got the U.S. Department of Justice on speed dial and says the Center for Arizona Policy has been advising him, as well.

"How can we not be excited for Jesus Christ?" he asks his YouTube viewers. "How can we not be zealous for the Lord?"

The North Glen Square neighborhood is just off the I-17, only blocks from the busy strip malls of Northern and Glendale avenues. But it feels worlds away.

North of Orangewood Avenue, 31st Avenue narrows to two tiny lanes. Here, the houses are mostly 30-year-old ranches with a lived-in grace, some of them quite large. (Michael Salman's, for example, is a sprawling 3,147 square feet, with a five-car garage.)

Here, there are trees; the Salt River Project uses the area for overflow, and "flood irrigation" has left the place a green oasis on a brown map. There are also horses: Many homeowners settled in the larger lots that surround Mariposa Park because the yards are big enough for a barn, or even two barns. It's not a young neighborhood, with more retirees than elementary school kids. Most of them will happily give you a rundown of their menagerie — horses, goats, chickens.

Mike and Andrea Julius, who both work in the mapping business, moved to the neighborhood 15 years ago. They liked it so much that when they were ready to upgrade, they found a house just three lots from their old one.

"We loved the neighborhood from the moment we first saw it," Andrea Julius says.

Perhaps because so many residents have lived here so long, people actually know their neighbors. Tom Woods is 81 and a former executive at APS. After living in the neighborhood for 36 years, he estimates that he knows "50 to 60" neighbors by name.

So when Michael and Suzanne Salman bought the big ranch house on 31st Avenue, Woods stopped by.

"I went up and shook hands and introduced him to the neighborhood," Woods says. "There was no problem. In fact, everything was fine until he started this project."

From the beginning, neighbors say, the Salmans were upfront about their faith, explaining that Michael was a pastor and inviting neighbors to check out their church. One of the Juliuses' neighbors, a local building contractor, even went to the church for a while.

But then Salman announced that he was planning to build a church right there in his backyard. He talked about not just Sunday services, but weeknight Bible studies, a workout room and basketball court, even a Christian day care center.

The plans generated lots of talk in the neighborhood. These houses aren't cheap — Salman paid $707,000, according to county records — and everyone was used to a certain bucolic feeling. Nobody liked the idea of church basketball games, loud Christian pop music, and a long line of cars coming in and out.

When, at a neighborhood association meeting, one neighbor told Salman he didn't like the plan, Andrea and Mike Julius watched Salman grow visibly angry.

It made a bad impression.

"It was clear at that point what we were dealing with," Andrea Julius says. "I don't want to say someone who seemed possessed, but not a cool-headed person."

Tom Woods remembers thinking the same thing. When neighbors complained about how his project would affect their property values, Woods says, Salman was dismissive.

"He gave us a lecture on the fact that all of us were going to make money on our property, and if we were true Christians, we ought to be willing to sacrifice a little bit," Woods recalls. "You can imagine, a few guys in the audience were all over him for that.

"That meeting is where the real animosity started. He made no effort at being conciliatory or cooperative. That really united the neighbors against him," Woods says. "He was his own worst enemy."

After Salman's comment about their property values, the neighbors were asking, "Who is this guy?" It took only a simple background check to get everybody really talking.

Salman, they found out, had a prison record: He was an ex-gang member who'd done time for a drive-by shooting.

They learned, too, that even after getting out of prison and becoming a pastor, he'd been booked on a misdemeanor for impersonating a police officer. According to court records, a girl from Salman's fledgling congregation was fooling around with an older boy; at the parents' request, Salmon went over to the boy's house and pretended to be a cop to scare him.

That didn't sit well with the neighbors. Neither did a document that showed up on the county recorder's Web site. In 1994, Salman had filed paperwork claiming that he belonged to the Embassy of God. That meant, the document claimed, that he didn't need to follow United States law.

While strange, that idea was actually popular with some fringe segments of Christianity at the time. An Oregon man started it by claiming that true Christians were exempt from the laws of earthly governments. In his thinking, they shouldn't face so much as a traffic ticket if they were caught speeding. Just as ambassadors from other countries have diplomatic immunity, so should "ambassadors" from Heaven. (When judges across the country disagreed, soon enough, the movement's popularity faded.

So that document circulated the neighborhood, as did the police report from Salman's arrest and the files from his divorce. They weren't exactly relevant, but they were certainly worth a chuckle.

"One neighbor got all the records together and made it available to anyone who wanted them," says Tom Woods. "And when you read all this stuff, you really start to wonder about the guy."

Michael Salman is sitting in his spotless den on a sunny December morning. His wife, Suzanne, pours glasses of iced tea; their two youngest daughters play quietly. They have two more daughters under the age of 8 and a fifth child on the way. They're hoping, understandably, for a boy.

The couple is more than happy to talk about the events of the past year. They know the neighbors are against them, but, as they describe it, they've faced nothing but one hassle after another for what ought be a fairly simple plan.

They have the land, and the neighborhood's zoning allows for churches. Why, the Salmans wonder, have things gotten so complicated?

"I want what is fair and right," Michael Salman says. "It's our property. Why should people be able to tell us what we can and can't do? I don't tell them they can't have horses. How can they tell me I can't have a Christian congregation?"

Salman is 5-foot-8 and built like a fireplug. Born in New York City, his family moved to northeast Phoenix when he was young. His parents are from Jordan.

But, like a small minority of Jordanians, the Salmans aren't Muslims. He was raised Catholic — sort of. "We went to church on Sunday and we lived in this world on Monday," he says, laughing ruefully.

Being a pastor isn't his full-time job. Salman works at a family-owned credit-card processing company; his wife, in addition to raising those four kids, is a licensed real estate agent.

But that's not the part of their life that the Salmans are talking about this morning. Instead, Salman talks about how he became a Christian, a journey that includes his time in prison. He talks about his criminal history without self-consciousness or even much prodding. It's his testimony, and he's clearly used to sharing it.

After graduating from Paradise Valley High School, Salman says, "I was a real rebel. I got involved in gangs. And then I found myself on the wrong side of the law."

In July 1992, hoping to scare the hell out of a kid who'd been messing with his girlfriend's little brother, police reports say, Salman donned a Raiders T-shirt and fired five rounds from a .38 special into the kid's house. The boy's mother was home at the time; she told police that one of the bullets nearly grazed her hairline.

During an interview with the cops, the police report says, Salman "attempted to minimize the seriousness of his crime by citing that it was not his intention to hurt anyone, as he only fired his handgun because he thought no one was at home." Later, friends of Salman's contacted not only the victim in an effort to scare him, but also had a mutual friend contact the son of then-County Attorney Rick Romley. Bizarrely, they seemed to be attempting to bribe the county's top prosecutor.

Not surprisingly, the effort failed, and a jury found Salman guilty of aggravated assault with a dangerous weapon. He was sentenced to six years in prison.

His record has come back to haunt Michael Salman. The neighbors who want to stop him from building know it's their ace in the hole. It's one thing to welcome a church into the neighborhood, but it's another thing altogether when that church is helmed by a convicted felon, particularly one with such a scary history.

But it was that record that led Salman to God.

Initially, Salman was far from a model inmate, suspected of selling drugs and disciplined both for swearing at guards and for possessing LSD, according to prison records. (He claimed the latter was a set-up.)

But records also indicate that, about a year before his release, Salman suddenly changed his signature. Instead of writing the l's in his first and last name, Salman drew crosses.

Salman gave his life to God while in lockdown, he recalls, fed up with prison and with himself. He describes it in language that wouldn't be out of place at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting: "You get sick and tired of being sick and tired."

There, in lockdown, "I got down on my knees and surrendered to the Lord," he says. His prison buddies "thought I'd taken so much LSD that I was seeing God."

In prison, Salman says, he signed up for a Bible correspondence course and was ordained as a minister. He was released in October 1996, just one month after earning his degree. He had served three years in prison.

Five years after he got out of prison, Salman began Harvest Christian Fellowship in his living room. For a small, non-denominational congregation, its birth was hardly unique: One man, dissatisfied with his current church, heard the call of God to start something new.

And Salman, for all his difficulty in getting along with neighbors, has the outsized personality of a guy who could either lead a gang or lead a church. Once his life changed, he simply redirected his passionate energy.

Salman says that after his release, he returned to his old stomping grounds, hoping to share Christ with his former gang brothers. After his first marriage quickly ended in divorce, he met Suzanne, who was raised in the Church of Christ. Suzanne's father, a former church elder, left that church to help Salman start Harvest Christian.

Unlike many start-up churches, theirs rapidly outgrew the family living room. That was a problem. With 70 or so congregants, the fellowship didn't have enough money to build something, or even buy an existing church building. It was still too big to meet comfortably in someone's house.

In 2002, Salman thought he'd found a solution. He'd gotten to know the members of a tiny congregation, one that owned a building they were tired of caring for. The Church of All Nations hired him to be its pastor. Minutes from a congregational meeting suggest that the members were thrilled to have found someone to maintain the property.

The situation deteriorated rapidly. According to a lawsuit the church's leadership filed against Salman, one of the new pastor's first moves was to put up a sign saying "Harvest Christian Fellowship." That wasn't what they'd bargained for: They were the Church of All Nations, and proud of it.

Salman insists that he had the loyalty of the congregation, but he clearly did not have the board of directors on his side. They voted to oust him, and when he fought back and refused to leave, they filed a "forcible detainer" to have him evicted. The judge granted it.

Salman ended up renting space from a local Baptist church. Because the church needed the building on Sunday mornings, he was forced to move services to Sunday afternoons. Attendance fell, from 70 people to about 35, he says.

He looked around for church buildings for sale but, at a few million dollars each, couldn't afford them.

That's when he stumbled onto the house on North 31st Avenue. If he sold his home, he realized, he'd be able to buy this one — with its sprawling, 62,000-square-foot lot. There would be plenty of room to build a church in the backyard.

He says that he called the city. "Are churches allowed in this neighborhood?" Sure, the city said. In December 2005, Salman made the deal.

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.

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."

Since construction of the "garage" was stopped last February, Michael Salman has been in the application process for a fully equipped church.

To the neighborhood's horror, the city has been moving his application along. Indeed, Salman has overcome every roadblock that's stood in his way.

First, there was the question of "primary use." The law says you can build a church only if it's the "primary," and most visible, structure on the property. With Salman's 3,800-square-foot house sitting front and center, the neighbors were sure they had him there — the house, to them, was clearly "primary."

But while the residents watched aghast, city planners suggested a way around that. If Salman made the church bigger than the house, it could be the primary structure. And, the planners said, if he put a big sign in the front yard, it would make the church more visible than the home sitting in front of it.

At that point, Salman changed his application to make the church 4,200 square feet — and agreed to erect a big sign.

Next, the neighbors argued that Salman needed more parking spaces. The city of Phoenix used to require one parking space for every five seats in a church; the North Glen Square neighbors thought that was way too few. At the neighbors' urging, the City Council agreed to consider a new ordinance, requiring one parking space for every three seats. That would mean so much parking that Salman would lose almost his entire backyard to asphalt.

The City Council approved the new rule unanimously.

But Salman is now appealing, saying that the city can't apply the new rule to his application retroactively. The neighbors are now afraid the city will cave on that, too. The neighbors are afraid the city will cave on that, too. After all, City Manager Frank Fairbanks has been urging caution, saying that the city needs to take Salman's constitutional rights into account.

"It's very important as we deal with this issue that we make sure we don't do anything unlawful or anything that violates his rights," Fairbanks tells New Times. "If we do that, in the end, the city would lose. So the city is making sure that none of his rights are violated, but at the same time, he has to comply with the city's rules and regulations."

Raya Tahan is a Phoenix lawyer hired by a group of six neighbors, including the Juliuses, to stop Salman. She can't believe the city has been cowed by the threat of a lawsuit.

"Everybody else, every other day, has to follow the rules," she says. "Except for Michael Salman. They let him just walk right through the door."

The construction will have a major impact on Salman's neighbors' property values, Tahan says. For one thing, the city is saying that he has to follow setback rules for residential, not commercial, construction.

That means his church will be permitted to sit just three feet from his next-door neighbor's property line.

That neighbor has since put up his house for sale, according to MLS listings. Tahan says that proves her point.

"If a Realtor does an open house, and the cars are lined up, up and down the street, and people can hear a sermon coming from the backyard, nobody will want to move there," she says. "People want a quiet neighborhood."

Salman, of course, sees things differently. He says he's never been anything but polite, yet the neighborhood is against him. And though he has every right to build, he believes the city is making him jump through hoop after hoop.

When Councilman Claude Mattox, who represents the area, called Salman to set up a meeting with the neighbors last year, Salman refused.

"I told him, 'I'm not going to talk to the neighbors,'" Salman says, emphatically. Almost immediately thereafter, he says, the city issued its "stop work" order. Salman says he called Mattox's office back in a rage: "'That's crooked! Because I don't want to sit down and meet with you guys, you give us a stop work order?'

"Why should I meet with him?" he asks. "I did everything according to the law."

Salman is now convinced that Mattox is out to get him. He references a meeting of the North Glen Square Neighborhood Association last fall. He didn't attend, but a member of his church, Brad Fronek, did.

Fronek says that Mattox spoke at great length about why churches were inappropriate for residential areas. Then he uttered the clincher.

"He made a point of saying that he didn't think Michael was totally above board about some things," Fronek says. "He felt like he had lied about some things, and he questioned his motives and his qualifications. He made mention of the fact that he was an ex-con — and then he said he felt that Michael was a religious zealot."

Mattox did not return repeated calls for comment.

Mary Bettis has the short gray hair and brisk friendliness of a retired accountant, which is exactly what she is. In her neighborhood, though, she's better known as the "mayor of North Glen Square."

Immediate past president of the neighborhood association, she's lived in North Glen Square since 1947, in the same modest house. She's seen condos go up on the big arterial streets. She's seen the city foolishly approve a housing development down the street, only to watch the developer go broke before managing to finish four houses.

But she's never seen a controversy like the one surrounding Salman's church.

The association represents 1,400 households, she says. On this matter, they have complete agreement.

"We can't find anybody in favor it," Bettis says flatly. "Not one."

Both sides agree that the debate has gotten ugly — and, of course, each side blames the other.

Salman's evidence? When he accidentally let his incorporation lapse with the secretary of state, one neighbor grabbed the "Harvest Christian Fellowship" name and registered it for himself. Salman was forced to re-file as "Harvest Christian Community Church."

As for the neighbors, well, they say that after they complained about Salman's project, he responded by holding a worship service, complete with an public-address system, at nearby Mariposa Park.

"You could hear him from a mile away," Mike Julius says.

"It went on probably a good hour," Andrea Julius adds.

"It was a couple of hours," Mike Julius says, correcting her. "It was just bad."

The neighbors also talk about what happened to Wade Bonine, Salman's next-door neighbor and, not coincidentally, the guy with his house on the market. Bonine has been Salman's most vocal critic. His lawyer, Richard Lee, says Bonine was forced to request a restraining order against Salman after the pastor came to Bonine's front door appearing to be in an angry mood.

Lee says Salman "raised his fist and Wade closed the door on him." The judge granted the restraining order.

But there's some irony in just how much animosity has resulted from the church's building plans, for one reason.

Salman doesn't have the money to build anything. Not even the shell of the building that he first proposed and certainly not a building that would be wired for business.

Talking to him, it seems clear that his dream has gotten ahead of his church's finances. After years of searching, he found a home for his church — never mind that the church itself is now too small to support a big construction project. Salman currently has only about 30 members and, he admits, not much in the way of extra cash. Records show that he and Suzanne took out a $564,000 mortgage to pay for the house. It's hard to imagine, in today's credit crunch, that any bank would loan them enough money to begin new construction in the backyard — construction that will hardly increase the property's value to most potential purchasers.

But when the neighborhood dug its heels in, so did the pastor.

"The church is going to be built," he says. "Even if it has to be built one brick at a time."

How is that even possible?

"God will provide," he says. "God always provides. I don't know how."

A few weeks later, Salman calls to say that the neighbors are threatening to file a "nuisance" lawsuit against him should the city allow him to build. He seems shocked that, in the letter threatening the suit, attorney Tahan mentions his criminal record.

"I don't even hide that from nobody," he says. "It's part of my testimony. It's who I am."

But then Salman mentions something fascinating. He's been talking to the U.S. Department of Justice about the way the city twice broke up his worship meetings.

If the city does it again, Justice is going to help him sue the city, he claims. At minimum, they'll file a "friend of the court" brief on his behalf, he says. (Justice wouldn't comment, which is not unusual, given that the department generally won't say anything before it intervenes.) He's also been talking to lawyers at Center for Arizona Policy, the influential Christian activist group started by former gubernatorial candidate Len Munsil.

Interestingly, this month, the church has started holding its Sunday-morning meetings — Salman won't call them services — at the house. The meetings are in defiance of a letter from the city's legal department, which specifically bars the church from meeting on-site until construction is complete.

Salman seems to realize that if the city shuts those meetings down, it may be the best thing that's happened to his little congregation. He says he's not trying to goad the city into action, but he can't help speculating about what would happen if it did.

"Maybe they'll get so angry that they'll do something stupid," he says. "Like put a cease-and-desist on us holding worship there. Eventually, the city can pay for the church!"

The thought is so appealing he can't help but repeat it.

"The city may have to pay for our church to be built," Michael Salman says. The excitement in his voice is unmistakable.

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