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Ruling lets sex offenders volunteer in churches

POSTED: March 31, 2009 11:30 p.m.

Georgia’s 16,000-plus registered sex offenders can sing in church choirs, take up collection plates and help out in church kitchens, at least for now.

A federal judge this week granted a preliminary injunction that overturns a provision of Georgia’s sex offender law. The provision imposed by state lawmakers prohibited registered sex offenders from volunteering in churches.

The Southern Center for Human Rights challenged the constitutionality of the restriction, saying it criminalized protected religious activity. The center has a pending lawsuit against Gov. Sonny Perdue which also challenges a restriction that would prevent sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school bus stop. That restriction is also on hold, pending the outcome of the court case.

U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper wrote in a ruling that church activity was recognized by state correction officials as a benefit for convicted criminals that helps reduce recidivism.

"Allowing plaintiffs to continue to participate in their faith communities will further public safety by providing support, stability and a grounded sense of right and wrong," Cooper wrote.

Cooper found the law banning sex offenders from volunteering in churches to be unconstitutionally vague, according to Sarah Geraghty, an attorney with the Southern Center of Human Rights.

"It was the only way to rule consistent with the Constitution," Geraghty said. " Certain people on the registry should not work with children in a church setting or elsewhere, but criminalizing the practice of religion does more harm than good, and that’s what this statute did," Geraghty said.

Geraghty said the law would make participating in Bible study a crime for sex offenders punishable by 10 to 30 years in prison.

The attorney said the ruling marks the sixth time that a provision of Georgia’s sex offender law was overturned, either by injunction or other means.

"The time for overbroad political posturing is over, and it’s time for the legislature to listen to law enforcement and fix this law," Geraghty said. "We need a strong law that protects children, but this law was so poorly drafted that it doesn’t serve its intended purpose."

Hall County authorities had been enforcing the church provision by informing sex offenders that they could not volunteer in churches, Hall County Sheriff’s Col. Jeff Strickland said. As a result of the court’s ruling, authorities will no longer impose that restriction, he said.

Hall County has 221 registered sex offenders, according to a Georgia Bureau of Investigation public database.

Portions of the federal lawsuit have been pending since June 2006. Cooper ruled against the state attorney general’s office this week in allowing the lawsuit to go forward as a class-action case.

The bus stop provision is believed to be the biggest single element of the case. If the law went into effect, many of Georgia’s sex offenders would be unable to find a home in their county that was not within 1,000 feet of a bus stop.

Authorities are not enforcing the bus stop restriction pending the outcome of the court case.

Geraghty said the two sides will present their final written legal arguments in the coming months.



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