Church-Activity Ban Prompts Legal Fight

June 18, 2009

ajc.com : Church-Activity Ban Prompts Legal Fight.

A Georgia law banning sex offenders from volunteer work at churches should be struck down because it “criminalizes fundamental religious activities,” a court motion filed Tuesday says.

The motion is the latest legal assault on the controversial state sex-offender registry law, one of the toughest in the nation. A new provision says no registered sex offender shall be employed by or volunteer at a church.

This makes it a crime for sex offenders to sing in adult choirs, prepare for revivals or cook meals in a church kitchen, said the motion, which seeks a court order halting enforcement of the provision before it becomes law July 1. It was filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta as part of ongoing litigation that seeks to declare the law unconstitutional.

Sarah Geraghty, a lawyer with the Southern Center for Human Rights, said punishing registered sex offenders for volunteer work at a place of worship will do more harm than good.

“Certain people on the sex-offender registry should not work with children in a church setting or elsewhere,” said Geraghty, one of the lawyers who filed the court motion. “With this law, the state of Georgia is driving people on the registry from the faith communities and depriving them of the rehabilitative influence of the church.”

The goal of the state’s sex-offender registry law is to keep sex offenders away from areas where children congregate and let the public know where the offenders reside. Its punishments are severe: Any offender caught working at or volunteering at a church can be sentenced to 10 to 30 years in prison.

“If we’re practicing our faith and doing this work, we’re doing the work God called us to do,” said Collins, who filed an affidavit in support of the motion. “The state is hindering what the Bible clearly speaks about. I just want them to take another look at this.”

A problem is that the ban is applied to all offenders, even if they were convicted of consensual sex as teenagers and pose no danger to children, he said Tuesday.

“The church is in the business of redemption,” Rose said. “We must not throw a blanket over all sinners. Those accused of being sex offenders are individuals and should be treated as such.”

The motion is part of ongoing litigation filed in 2006 after the Legislature enacted restrictions on where sex offenders could live and work. U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper initially issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting law enforcement from barring registered offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school bus stop. That order has since been lifted, but the bus stop restriction is not being enforced while the litigation makes its way through court.

Last year, the Georgia Supreme Court struck down part of the law prohibiting registered offenders from living within 1,000 feet of places where children congregate. This past session, the Legislature revised the law primarily to address the state Supreme Court’s ruling.

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