The Authorities Have Been Contacted
OK, first, read this story about an Arizona Bible Study guy who’s going to jail because of his Bible Study.
Now read this one about a California couple that was fined for their Bible Study.
It’s a war, right? Surely, it’s a sign that there’s evil afoot and a war on Christianity and it’s time for us all to get to arms to defend the rights of these gentle-hearted, innocent people who just want to read the Bible and learn about Jesus, right?
A lot of my friends and colleagues have brought the first case to my attention over the past few days with the wide-eyed expression awaiting the obvious shock and dismay I must feel at this obvious encroachment by the government upon the rights of the church… that never comes. See, while I am of the strong opinion that there is a war on my faith being conducted by secularists and other people who want to use the government to evangelize us all into atheism, I’m pretty sure this isn’t the case in either of these cases.
Both of these cases share a few common points:
- A family decides to hold a home-based Bible Study.
- Said Bible Study gets really popular and a lot of people (usually between 25-50) start showing up on a regular basis.
- The authorities show up citing something about zoning and public safety.
- The family decides eventually to go to the media to fight their war.
- Fines and/or jail time plus public outrage ensues.
Simple enough, except that there’s a few points missing, most importantly, between #2 and #3. This is a spot that I like to call “the vacuum of neighborliness”, where neighborliness should have existed, but instead, we get a gigantic hole in the story. So, let’s fill that hole with the clues we have, namely: the number of people showing up. 25-50 people typically means you’re getting between 10 and 20 additional cars in your neighborhood, creating traffic congestion, noise, and crowding. In a rural area, this isn’t really a problem, but in an urban area, this causes major issues for other people who live in the neighborhood, not to mention the ability for emergency vehicles to navigate the area. And so, someone called code enforcement.
I’ve known some code enforcement folks in my time and the general gist I’ve gotten from them is that they really, really don’t want to stir up trouble. Their lives are happier if they don’t have to play the bureaucratic ombudsman for neighbors who aren’t talking to each other anymore, and they would really rather just let things go. Typically, this means that people get inspected. Someone usually tries to contact them informally to see if the issue can be resolved. If it can’t, then they go to warning letters. Then repeat letters. They try to work with the person in question to see if adaptations can be made to the property to allow them to legally continue their venture. It goes on and on until it’s obvious that someone’s just being a jerk about the whole mess and that’s when fines start going out. And I’m willing to bet some reasonably good money that this is exactly what happened in California. The end result there was that the homeowners worked it out with the city and all was well.
In Phoenix, not so much.
What we actually have here is the case of a convicted felon – one Michael Salman, who’d served 6 years for shooting up people’s homes and who tried to bribe a state attorney on the matter. He was sentenced to 6 years in prison back in 1993 for the crimes. In 1996, according to his website, 3 years into his sentence, he was ordained by the COGIC and began his ministry, and ended up hosting what he called a Bible Study in his home in the early 2000′s. Said study would have anywhere from 40-80 people, depending on whether or not people were getting baptized or not. All the problems actually began back in 2007 when Salman applied to the city for a 2,000 expansion to his “game room”. It was approved, so long as said expansion wasn’t used for any business or church-related activities due to zoning and safety requirements like fire exits, accessible bathrooms, etc. By the time it was done, said game room didn’t include much in the way of games, but did include chairs, a podium, a pulpit, and a sign with the name of the church.
In other words: he lied to the city to get his expansion approved without having to meet the standards for a public building like a church.
In 2008, after getting am $18,000 fine issued for safety violations, he was granted the right to label his home as a church by inspectors. This saved him tax money, but now he has to actually meet the standards for a church building, including safety regulations. If 40-80 people are going to gather, then you’re going to have to address issues like emergency exits, bathrooms, and parking. Salman hasn’t done so. The City has been fighting him for over 5 years and now he’s getting sent back to his home from the early 90′s to think about what he did.
Is it reasonable for a city to do this? Well, let me ask you this: would you be OK with me building a structure in a crowded urban neighborhood out of dry tinder with a single 1-person entrance and exit, and holding church services during a lightning storm for 125 people? You shouldn’t be OK with it because it’s an unsafe situation. If a fire starts, there will be death, and if there’s cars blocking the path for emergency vehicles, it becomes a threat, not only to those gathered inside, but to the neighbors as well, since fire has this tendency to “spread rapidly”. Although my libertarian friends may disagree, providing for the general welfare and public safety is one of the most basic requirements of local government. Throw in the deceitful, uncooperative behavior by Mr. Salman and I’ll say it: yes, it’s perfectly reasonable for a city to require that buildings where people gather en masse for whatever purpose are safe for the people inside, the people outside, and any public safety personnel that may have to enter the structure.
And this, kids, leads us to what I like to call my rules of not being a jerk about your Bible Study. I’ve used these before, expanded on them, elaborated, but they’re pretty definitive and I think you should pay attention, memorize them, and repeat them over and over.
- Hosting a Bible Study in your home is a good thing. Our faith is a critical element of who we are as people, and strengthening that faith through study and fellowship is a wonderful part of growth.
- Not being a jerk about your Bible Study is an equally good thing. Just because we have a responsibility to share our faith doesn’t mean we have a right to be a jerk about it.
- If you’re going to host a Bible Study in your home, be a good neighbor to those around you. Love your neighbor as yourself by being pleasant about your Bible Study. Just because you think you have the constitutional right to have a Bible Study doesn’t take away your neighbors’ rights to live in peace.
- Try to keep your Bible Study size appropriate for your neighborhood. If you’ve got a 3-bed 1,500 sq ft house in the burbs and you’re hosting 50 people… you may want to break up into smaller groups. That way, you limit the amount of traffic on the road and keep transportation around your neighborhood moving smoothly. You also have less risk of someone ticking off your neighbors by blocking them in their driveways, damaging their lawn, or creating too much noise.
- Keep lines of communication open between yourself and your neighbors. Let them know what’s going on and when – and keep to the schedule. If you say it’s going to be from 7-9 pm, don’t hold things over until 9:30. Make sure your neighbors have your phone number so that they can contact you if there’s a problem. If they do contact you with a problem: address the problem. And invite your neighbors (and don’t get offended if they say no). Don’t ruin a relationship with someone you share a fenceline with because you’re got a bug up your butt.
- If you’re holding weekly services with chairs, flyers, a pulpit and a website, you’re a church. Act like one by providing a safe, friendly environment for worshiping God. If that means that you’re going to have to move your activities to a more public location, then do so. Trust God to provide through offerings, donations, etc.
- Finally, and most importantly: don’t be a jerk. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. If a neighbor calls you to complain that there’s too much traffic and noise, then listen to them and try to work with them. If the city shows up and says that you need to have clearly marked exit doors, then go down to Lowe’s or Home Depot and pick up some exit signs. If the city tells you that the structure you’re in is unsafe for the crowd you’re drawing, then by all means, find another structure or split into smaller groups. If you’re going to represent Jesus to people, then act like He would.
I know all this is a bit of a veer from my usual Obama-bashing, and that may be shocking to some of you, but at the end of the day, conservatives and Christians should be smarter than this. Don’t give in to conspiracy theories and manipulation by charlatans and criminals. Be smart. Listen up. Learn stuff.
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