By Tami Fitzgerald
Christian Action League
A North Carolina judge ruled unconstitutional a law that bans registered sex offenders from attending church. The law is part of a comprehensive set of new statutes intended to protect children from coming in contact with registered sex offenders, those convicted of committing a violent sexual offense or a sexual offense against children.
In a ruling issued on December 17, 2009, Chatham County Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour dismissed the charges against two registered sex offenders for attending a Baptist church near Raleigh. Francis Demaio and James Nichols were indicted May 11 for violating a state law requiring sex offenders to stay at least 300 feet away from places used primarily by children. The two men had been attending Moncure Baptist Church, which has a nursery on its premises, for several months.
General Statutes § 14-208.18(a) (titled “Sex offender Unlawfully on Premises”) was passed by the General Assembly in 2008 as part of the “Jessica Lunsford Act,” a national legislative campaign to curtail repeat sex offenses against children by creating stiffer penalties. The Act is named after a 9-year-old former resident of Gaston County, N.C. who was kidnapped, raped, and murdered in Florida in 2005. Judge Baddour acknowledged that: “The state’s interest in protecting the public and protecting minors is a compelling governmental interest.” He ruled, however, that the statute is unconstitutionally broad and vague.
The statute prohibits registered sex offenders from knowingly being at a “place intended primarily for the use, care, or supervision of minors” (such as a school, playground or other child-centered facilities). It also prohibits registered sex offenders from “being within 300 feet of any location intended primarily for the use, care, or supervision of minors.” This language, the judge ruled, is unconstitutionally vague because it doesn’t specify whether children actually have to be present for an offender to be in violation. It is too vague for registered sex offenders to know if they are breaking the law or for law-enforcement officials to know when to make an arrest, he said. Additionally, when applied to churches, it violates sex offenders’ First Amendment rights under the U. S. Constitution to the freedom of association and the freedom to practice their religion.
When enacting the statute, the General Assembly exempted sex offenders who are parents of students enrolled in school, voters entering a polling place, and minors who are attending school or receiving medical treatment. They forgot, however, to exempt sex offenders who are attending church.
A bill was introduced in the 2009 session of the General Assembly to fix this problem and to further restrict the ability of registered sex offenders to associate with children. The bill, HB 1317—Sex Offender Registry Changes, allows registered sex offenders to attend church and religious services only if the sex offender notifies the senior pastor and obtains written permission from the church. The bill also adds numerous restrictions on sex offenders that would likely meet the same demise. While the House passed HB 1317, the Senate has not yet taken it up, and the bill will be eligible for Senate consideration in the 2010 Session of the General Assembly.