A year-old state law in North Carolina was found by a Superior Court judge to be unconstitutional because it prevents certain registered sex offenders from going to church, according to a ruling Thursday.
While Judge Allen Baddour acknowledged the need to protect children, he said "there are less drastic means for achieving the same purpose."
Presently, state law prohibits certain sex offenders from being within 300 feet of "any place where minors gather for regularly scheduled educational, recreational or social programs," including areas that are part of a larger facility, though the law doesn't specify whether that 300-foot radius extends to the borders of the larger facility.
It also doesn't specify whether children actually have to be present for an offender to be in violation, making it unconstitutionally vague, according to Baddour.
"There are a host of protected religious activities abridged by this statute," the judge wrote in Thursday's ruling.
Thursday's decision comes after registered sex offenders James Nichols and Frank DeMaio challenged the state law, saying it was too broad and denied them their right to attend the church of their choice.
Nichols and DeMaio were indicted in May on charges of violating the law by attending Moncure Baptist Church, which has a nursery and regular programs for children.
Nichols, who was twice convicted of indecent liberties with a teen girl and again in 2003 for attempted second-degree rape, said God has blessed him by teaching him how to live a better life and expressed earlier this year his hope to win his case so that he can continue to better himself by going to the church.
"I believe wholeheartedly if it wasn't for God, I don't know where I'd be today," he told The Associated Press.
ACLU of North Carolina, which assisted Nichols in the case, informed the local media that it had heard from more than 50 registered sex offenders or their pastors asking how they could comply with the law.
Despite the Baddour's decision, experts say the General Assembly is unlikely to revise the law unless the state Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court concurs with Thursday's ruling.
But a bill to revise the law has already passed the state House and has been assigned to the Senate judiciary committee.
If approved, the proposed revision would drop the 300-foot radius and would simply ban offenders from areas where children are regularly supervised.
Currently 36 states have established zones where sex offenders cannot live or visit, and some provide exceptions for churches. Many, however, do not.