Last week two Christian pastors were jailed in the United States for violation of court orders involving two different types of property disputes.
In Phoenix, Arizona, Pastor Michael Salman of the Harvest Christian Fellowship Community Church (not affiliated with the Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, CA) is serving a 60-day prison sentence for violating building, fire, and zoning codes. In 2008 Salman received a permit to build a 2,000 square foot “game room” which expressly prohibited its use as a church, business or assembly because it did not meet the physical requirements that such structures were required to meet. Large groups of 80 people would routinely meet on the property.
In 2010 Salman was found guilty of 67 Class 1 misdemeanors such as not having lighted emergency exits, fire doors or sprinklers. He appealed the conviction, lost, and began serving his 6-day term on July 9. Although he described it as a “home Bible study,” the Salman church collected tithes and he reported it as a church to avoid property taxes on the home.
Despite cries of violation of religious freedom, the code violations in question were undoubtedly secular and Salman would have to convince the courts that his church should be exempted from meeting generally required health and safety regulations and that he had been completely honest when describing this structure, which included chairs and a pulpit as a game room when he applied for the permit.
The other case involves intellectual property rights. On Friday, July 13, Tennessee Pastor Walter McGill was arrested outside the Loma Linda University Church of Seventh-day Adventists on federal charges stemming from a contempt of court citation for refusing to abide by a court order to stop referring to his church in Guys, Tennessee as the “Creation Seventh-day Adventist Church.”
In April a federal judge issued a warrant for the arrest of McGill and a church member, Lucan Chartier who apparently “remains at large.”
McGill who had left the Seventh-day Adventist Church a couple of decades ago for theological reasons had started the “Creation Seventh-day Adventist Church” based on what he believed was a divine mandate. The worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church sued McGill for trademark violation and, after six years of litigation, won the case in 2010.
But McGill, claiming religious conviction, refused to change the name of his small congregation. In an interview with the Press Enterprise, McGill said, “To cease using it would be to disregard the plain instructions of God.”
Apparently McGill had planned to hold a news conference at the Loma Linda University Church of Seventh-day Adventists on Sunday and had visited the site on Friday. His presence was reported to the police and sheriff’s deputies arrested him.
It is unclear whether McGill will be sent back to Tennessee to serve the rest of his 30-day sentence or remain in the San Bernardino County Jail. McGill reportedly plans to go on a hunger strike, or fast, throughout his imprisonment.
The church has a legitimate interest in protecting its trademark and goes to Federal Court to protect it. This is to avoid situations like the Baptists, who have not been able to trademark their name, face when people like Fred Phelps name their church the “Westboro Baptist Church.” The Church of Scientology has also protected its trademark, presumably for similar reasons.
McGill refuses to abide by the court ruling on grounds of conscience. He ends up in jail. Arguably this is a tougher case than the Salman matter and it presents an interesting juxtaposition between intellectual property rights of religious organizations and individual rights of conscience. With the jailing of Pastor McGill, the matter has entered the sphere of public opinion, and I hope that the Seventh-day Adventist Church™ will recognize that two issues are at play and respond in a way that honors both its legacy and dedication to religious liberty. According to some articles on the subject making their way through the press, the church could at least put in a request that Pastor McGill be released and a compromise reached.
So that’s the story – two pastors jailed within a week. One for violating zoning rules of Phoenix and the other for refusing on grounds of conscience.
For more information on the Walter “Chick” McGill story check out Spectrum Magazine’s article by Jared Wright, “Creation Seventh Day Adventist Pastor Imprisoned, Fasting”
For more information on the Michael Salman case, see http://religiousliberty.tv/is-it-really-...ordinances.html