Reasonable? Ridiculous?

Reasonable citizen, ridiculous authorities? Or . . . 

JimCoffinBy James Coffin

“Michael Salman, an Arizona resident who was jailed for 60 days for hosting a weekly Bible study in his home and on his private property, is set to appear in court . . . on charges that he violated his probation by continuing to hold Bible studies . . . after being ordered not to have more than 12 people gathered on his property at any one time, and that he failed to pay more than $10,000 in related fines” (Rutherford Institute news release, July 16, 2012).

Now I don’t know about you, but my immediate reaction upon hearing that someone has been arrested for conducting Bible studies on his own property is that it sounds like religious persecution. However, there are at least two sides to every story.

Since I don’t know all the details of Mr. Salman’s showdown with code-enforcement officials in Phoenix, I won’t argue about who’s right or wrong. Rather, I’d like to look at some basic principles.

Suppose I clean out my attic and then have a garage sale to get rid of the things I no longer want but that still could have some commercial value. For a few hours one weekend I set up tables in my drive and let treasure seekers paw through my trash.

Even though the covenants of my subdivision say the community is residential and not commercial, I’d think my neighbor was being extreme if he complained about my garage sale on that basis. And I think most people would agree.

On the other hand, if I discover how many treasure seekers love pawing through trash–and start having garage sales from Friday morning until Sunday evening every weekend–I think my neighbor would be justified in complaining.

I can understand why he wouldn’t like congested streets all weekend as people fight for parking spaces. I wouldn’t blame him for not wanting people forever turning around in his driveway. And I think most people would agree with his concern. It’s supposed to be a residential neighborhood, after all.

My point is this: In most disagreements with neighbors and/or authorities, there’s an extreme at which almost every onlooker would say, “That’s totally reasonable.” But there’s an opposite extreme at which almost every onlooker would say, “That’s ridiculous.” So it’s critical to have a sense of where “reasonable” ends and “ridiculous” begins–whether we’re talking garage sales or home-based Bible studies.

Neither the neighbors nor the authorities are likely to get bent out shape about two or three extra cars in someone’s driveway once a week for a Bible study. But, for purposes of our discussion here, let’s assume it grows to 20 or 30 cars each week. And singing. And sound amplification. And loud talking and laughter as people leave. And they stay until late at night. I can understand how the neighbors and the authorities might complain in that scenario.

I don’t know all the facts in Mr. Salman’s case. So it’s possible that he’s truly being persecuted by his neighbors and the Phoenix authorities. But it’s also not out of the realm of possibility that he’s flouting their legitimate concerns.

The U.S. Constitution seeks to protect the free exercise of religion. But it doesn’t say that religion automatically trumps every other consideration of law and community.

James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.