Michael Salman, the pastor from Phoenix who was fined and sentenced to jail for holding Bible studies in his home, started his 60-day jail sentence at 10 a.m. today.The preacher asked for prayers as he left his wife and six kids to report to Maricopa County Jail.
"I have spent time with my family this morning praying, crying and saying our goodbye. My heart is broken, but glory to God," Salman wrote on his Facebook page this morning. "Our God wil take care of us and my family. Please pray for us! Until God opens the prison's door, I will be with you all in prayer and spirit."
His wife, Susanne, was nervous about her husband being away for two months but stood by their decision to hold the Bible study gatherings.
Salman, an ordained pastor and owner of a burger restaurant, believes that he was discriminated against for his Christian faith. He said the city of Phoenix would probably allow gatherings for poker or football, but not those for religious purposes.
"They're cracking down on religious activities and religious use," Salman told Fox News Radio last week. "They're attacking what I as a Christian do in the privacy of my home."
The couple have posted a YouTube video giving a tour of their property. In the video, they argue that their meetings did not violate city code anymore than a neighbor's gathering, where several cars blocked a parkway.
The Phoenix city prosecutor's office said the violations were not about religious freedom, but came down to "zoning" and "proper permitting."
"Any time you are holding a gathering of people continuously as he does — we have concerns about people being able to exit the facility properly in case there is a fire — and that's really all this comes down to," said Vicki Hill, the chief assistant city prosecutor, according to Fox News Radio.
The long-standing battle between Salman and the City of Phoenix culminated in the summer of 2009, when police used a search warrant to check Salman's property for code violations.
A lot of the dispute has centered around whether the building used for gatherings in Salman's backyard is a church. Salman contended it was not; the city said it was.
Salman has taken his fight to court but the Arizona courts have consistently ruled against him. In a January 2010 ruling, a court stated that the state is not prohibiting Salman to run a church or worship services at the location, but it requires that Salman abide by "fire and zoning codes."
Salman's attorney filed an emergency appeal with the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to release the preacher but a judge has not issued a ruling.