The Marshall Project
Last month, a North Carolina sheriff announced that people on the state’s sex-offender registry could not attend church services in the community. Instead, Sheriff Danny Millsaps said, they could go to church at the county jail.
Graham County, where Millsaps is the chief law enforcer, only has 9,000 residents, with 20 on the registry, but his policy taps into a much larger issue faced by states, counties, and churches throughout the country as they implement often sweeping and strict laws meant to prevent sex crimes: Can sex offenders attend church? And is denying them the ability to do so a violation of their rights?
Ever since states began creating sex offender registries and passing laws to limit where people on such registries could live or work, churches have faced a confounding choice. On the one hand, children are brought to church, leading lawmakers and law enforcers to enact bans on attendance by people on the registry. On the other hand, advocates for sex-offender rights say churches often provide a means of assimilating back into the community, which makes future crimes less likely.
There are also constitutional issues at play. Through a series of laws between 2003 and 2008, Georgia forbade those on the sex-offender registry from living within 1,000 feet of areas where children gather, from school bus stops to libraries to swimming pools. Volunteering at a church could cost an offender ten years in prison. Civil rights attorneys convinced a federal judge to block the provision, and now general legal precedents forbid such sweeping laws.
But state laws are also subject to varying interpretations, and it remains unclear how often law-enforcement officials in small communities, like Sheriff Millsaps in North Carolina, are enforcing bans — and tempting lawsuits; the American Civil Liberties Union has said it is reviewing his policy.
Picture: Tony Hisgett [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons