CA : City Demands Church Ban Sex Offenders

September 23, 2009

Sentencing Law & Policy : Pastor and city leaders fighting over sex offender working at church in California.

This local story out of California, which is headlined “Pastor: San Bernardino council ultimatum is unconstitutional,” reports on the details of a brewing constitutional debate involving churches freedom and local sex offender restrictions. Here are the basics:

Responding to a demand that First Church of the Nazarene ban registered sex offenders or to stop receiving city money to host a youth facility there, the church’s pastor contended the ultimatum is an unconstitutional violation of his religious freedom. “I cannot think of anything more antithetical or repugnant to the fundamental values upon which our nation was founded — freedom of religion, freedom to worship God without interference from the government, freedom to practice Christianity without oppression,” Pastor David Rhone wrote Tuesday in a letter to Mayor Pat Morris and the council.

The controversy follows Monday’s revelation — through the leak of a confidential memo — that a man convicted of incest and lewd and lascivious conduct with a person younger than 14 performed work at the First Church of the Nazarene.

A police investigation determined that the man’s presence at the church did not present a danger to children or that any new crimes were committed. Nevertheless, the issue is sensitive not only because San Bernardino is in the middle of election season, but because the church hosts San Bernardino’s flagship Operation Phoenix youth center. That center was managed by Mike Miller until Miller’s arrest in July 2008 on suspicion of child molestation. Miller has pleaded not guilty and is incarcerated while awaiting trial. The church also hosts SOAR Charter Academy and Valley Christian Pre-school.

Rhone said Tuesday that he would rather sever the church’s relationship with the city than let the government decide who can attend services, but he does not expect that to come to pass. Instead, he expects the council to take back its demand and apologize. “They’ve got to reconsider because what they’ve asked us to do is unlawful,” Rhone said. The Police Department determined that children were not threatened while on church property.

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