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Law 'criminalizes religion' for sex offenders, legal advocates say

POSTED: June 28, 2008 5:00 a.m.

A legal advocacy group filed a motion in federal court Tuesday asking for a judge to issue an injunction against a new law that would prevent registered sex offenders from volunteering in churches.

The Southern Center for Human Rights says the new law, set to take effect July 1, "criminalizes religion" by adding the prohibition to its list of restrictions on the state’s 15,700 registered sex offenders.

Sarah Geraghty, a staff attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights, said that while some people on the registry should not work in a church setting, "criminalizing the practice of religion for all 15,000 people on the registry will do more harm than good."

The injunction includes affidavits from sex offenders living in Cobb, Gwinnett, Fulton and Henry counties who say they would be prevented from participating in church activities because of the new legislation.

The center says activities such as singing in a church choir, preparing for revivals or cooking meals in a church kitchen would be considered crimes punishable by 10 to 30 years in prison.

Geraghty acknowledged that the new law does not prohibit sex offenders from attending church services, but said the term "volunteering," as defined by the statute, was "very vague."

She questioned whether pastors who allowed a registered sex offender to participate in a volunteer activity might become "accessories to the crime."

Geraghty said church leaders can protect their parishioners by instituting policies for people who work with children, conducting background checks and consulting the sex offender registry, which is available on the Internet.

She said the new law was counterproductive because it denied sex offenders chances for rehabilitation.

"The rehabilitative influence of the church is not to be underestimated," Geraghty said.

The motion for injunction is part of a larger lawsuit, Wendy Whitaker v. Sonny Perdue, that has been pending since 2006. In that suit, the center challenged the provision that restricted sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a designated bus stop. U.S. District Court Judge Clarence Cooper granted a temporary restraining order against the state in that case, and three counties later agreed to an injunction pending the outcome in court.

Cooper has not set a hearing date for the most recent injunction request.

The office of state Attorney General Thurbert Baker is defending the law in court. A spokesman for Baker was not immediately available for comment.



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