This article from Time highlights the growing trend toward increased restrictions on the activities of sex offenders. Now they can’t go to church:
North Carolina is a proud member of the so-called Bible Belt of states that take their religion seriously. So some eyebrows were raised when James Nichols was arrested for attending church.
His offense? Nichols, a convicted sex offender, had chosen to worship at a church that has a nursery where kids play while their parents pray. Now Nichols, 31, who only recently got out of prison, is fighting back, challenging the legality of a new law that took effect in December prohibiting registered sex offenders from coming within 300 ft. â€” nearly a football field’s length â€” of any facility devoted to the use, care or supervision of minors.
As more states have adopted laws regulating where sex offenders can go, it was only a matter of time before the noble goal of protecting children butted heads with the sacrosanct First Amendment right to worship where and when you choose. Which takes precedence?
“This law makes it illegal to do things that are not wrong, like go to church,” says Glen Gerding, Nichols’ attorney. “When does the state stop interfering with a church’s business? Will pastors be charged as an accessory for letting a known sex offender sit in a front-row pew and worship?”
Most states restrict sex offenders’ movements in some way; North Carolina’s law is hardly the strictest. In Georgia, registered sex offenders can’t live or work within 1,000 ft. of places including schools, churches and child-care centers. Courts there have waded into questions of religion, ruling in favor of the right of offenders to partake in activities including volunteering in a church kitchen, attending adult Sunday School and singing in a church choir.
On behalf of Georgia’s 16,000 registered sex offenders, the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights has sued the state over its residency and employment restrictions, including the ban on faith-based volunteering. “There are serious constitutional problems in banning someone from going to church, not to mention this runs counter to the church’s mission of inclusion, hospitality and redemption,” says Sara Totonchi, the center’s associate director.
I dare say that probably a majority of church-goers would not want sex offenders to be in their presence. Also, I would say that failure to adequately protect children on the church premises could result in horrific liability issues should something go wrong.
At issue is the presumption that a sex offender is a danger to the public. While certainly, some sex offenders are a public menace, others are clearly not. The matter at hand is not to analyze the scope of sex crimes or those crimes that should or should not require registration. I think the issue is whether a sex offender has any human rights at all once the offender’s sentence is carried out.
In theory, any person who was convicted of a crime should face no institutionalized discrimination once their sentence is served. This concept is becoming more of a fantasy, however, in a society that prefers to stigmatize and ostracize offenders in general and especially sex offenders seemingly taking pleasure by making sport of afflicting them. Why?
Sex offenders are reported to have a very high recidivism rate, meaning that they are prone to re-offend. While this is certainly likely in the case of child molesters, such a conclusion across the very broad spectrum of sex crimes does not seem reasonable. For example, an 18 year old who has engaged in statutory rape with a consenting 16 year old, is probably neither a threat to the community nor a likely repeat offender. Thus, the broad definition of sex crimes and the “sex offender” status seems inclined to intentionally inflict damages on people whose supposed debt to society has already been paid.
Beyond offender registration requirements are a slew of other rules, regulations, and laws designed to prevent sex offenders from every resuming a productive life. In fact, the limitations imposed by society that force sex offenders to be unemployable and homeless tend to lead offenders into other non-sex crimes in their struggle for survival. Neighborhoods band together to block sex offenders from moving in. State and privately operated web sites map the whereabouts of sex offenders, making sure that they cannot escape their past.
From my brief summary, the injustice should be quite apparent: (1) an assumption that a sex offender will re-offend,Â (2) government-sanctioned laws that make life impossible, and (3) public and private efforts to identify, track, and expose offenders even after their sentences are served. By now, many readers will be irate, accusing me of defending these terrible people. Well, rest assured that I am not… at least not in the way you might think. Sure, sometimes punishment for offenders may be – in the opinion of some – too lenient. I’m sure this is often the case. In fact, anyone who watches the O’Reilly Factor knows that this happens quite often. Then those who say, “what about the rights of the victims?” I am aware that – especially in the cases of child molestation – the victims have issues to deal with for an entire lifetime. In reality, however, all that can be done is what the justice system (or as I often call it, the “injustice” system) imposes on the offender. If the offender has finished the apportioned sentence, that offender should be extended full opportunity to resume a normal life – an effort that is met with intense societal resistance. It’s not up to a neighborhood, a web site, a city, or a state to perpetuate misery, discrimination, and despair upon an offender whose sentence is complete. Period. That person once again should have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Enter this article from Time that discusses how even things such as church attendance are being used to persecute sex offenders. Now it’s illegal for a sex offender to attend church in North Carolina. This is something that reflects very poorly upon our society. First, churches (theoretically) should be very interested in helping those who have led troubled lives. Jesus came not only to minister to sinners in general, but specifically to prisoners and to the poor. I would presume that a church should be interested in reaching all people – including sex offenders with the Gosepel of Jesus Christ. The Bible teaches that those who receive Christ become new creatures and are no longer bound by past sins. So, a church should welcome all people, regardless of their background. Now – getting back to the liability issue – we also must realize that not everyone who claims to be born again actually is born again. This is true for every type of person.
Knowing that most sex offenders are likely to never be caught and charged with a crime, and knowing that many sex offenders re-offend, and knowing that many conversions are phony, every church should have adequate facilities to provide for the protection of their youth of all ages from predators. Sure, some members may be hostile to a known offender, but what about the greater danger of the offender that has never been caught? At least a registered sex offender’s whereabouts is known… what about a church member that preys upon children that hasn’t been caught (yet)? That one is far more dangerous. Thus the attitude that youth at a church are in any greater danger because of a former sex predator attending worship seems to be more prejudicial and discriminatory rather than an actual circumstance. Additionally, involvement in church should be a good thing, encouraged by the state. At least these people are trying to get better and trying to find a better life. Any avenue that will help restore people to a profitable position in society should be actively promoted.
Thus, I say that where the institutionalized discrimination against offenders is unwarranted, restricting former sex offenders from church is even more unwarranted. Furthermore, intervention in church affairs by the government is unconstitutional and should not be tolerated. Offenders who have completed their sentences should not be forced to give up their basic human rights for the rest of their lives.