Sex Offenders Fight for Right to Attend Church

Convicted sex offenders in North Carolina and Georgia are challenging their respective states' sex-offender laws, arguing that the criminalization of their religious activities is intrusive of their core rights to free exercise of religion.

"[O]ver 16,000 [sex offenders] are subject to prosecution if they volunteer at churches, even though none of the activities in which they participate involves unsupervised contact with minors," argues Sarah Geraghty, an attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR), which has asked a U.S. District Court to strike down Georgia's sex offender law as unconstitutional.

"The prohibition against volunteering at a church is substantially overbroad, vague and intrusive of core rights to free exercise of religion. Summary judgment and a permanent injunction should be granted to Plaintiffs," she adds in one of five briefs filed two weeks ago.

Currently, under Georgia state law, sex offenders are prohibited from living within 1,000 feet of churches, school bus stops, and swimming pools and prohibited from working within 1,000 feet of churches, schools, and child care centers.

Though the law, like those in 35 other states, establishes zones where sex offenders cannot live or visit to protect the public from child molesters, sex offender advocates contend that barring all offenders from houses of worship denies them support needed to become productive citizens.

Such is the case of James Nichols in North Carolina, who has engaged in his own legal battle against his state after police arrested him earlier this year for going to a church that has a child-care center.

Though Nichols says he was trying to better himself by going to church, the thrice convicted 31-year-old is not allowed under state law to be within 300 feet of any place intended primarily for the use, care or supervision of minors.

"The law gives you no room to better yourself," he told The Association Press.

While some states provide exemptions in their sex offender laws for churches, many do not.

And those that do not often have hefty consequences for offenders.

Under the statute in Georgia, activities such as singing in an adult choir, looking up passages for the pastor in Bible study, preparing for revivals and prayer vigils, or cooking meals in a church kitchen are considered criminal activity punishable by 10-30 years in prison.

"The Statute's prohibition against volunteering at a church is overbroad and interferes with protected activities," argues SCHR's Geraghty on behalf of Wendy Whitaker, who is on the sex offender registry for engaging in consensual sex when she was a sophomore in high school.

Furthermore, the attorney adds, the prohibition against volunteering and employment at a church could "undermine public safety in some respects."

Evidence from the Board of Pardons and Parole, the Georgia Department of Corrections and others suggest that "encouraging people to be involved with faith-based programs will reduce recidivism," she notes.

After filing five motions for summary judgment in their case, Whitaker v. Perdue, SCHR now waits for the state to respond to their briefs.

Once the state has done so, the court will make a decision on the case.

James Nichols in North Carolina, meanwhile, is receiving assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.

Nichols, who was twice convicted of indecent liberties with a teen girl and again in 2003 for attempted second-degree rape, says God has blessed him by teaching him how to live a better life.

"I believe wholeheartedly if it wasn't for God, I don't know where I'd be today," he told The Associated Press.

Nichols hopes that by winning his case, he can continue to better himself by going to church.