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Sex offenders sue for right to volunteer at churches
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ATLANTA — Georgia’s registered sex offenders should not be prevented from volunteering in church, a legal advocacy group argued in federal court Thursday, saying a state law that went into effect in July is overbroad and violates their rights of freedom of association.

Lawyers for the Georgia Attorney General’s office, meanwhile, countered that the law preventing registered sex offenders from volunteering in church did not keep them from attending services or practicing their religion of choice.

And an attorney for the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association said the state’s 159 sheriffs just want some direction.

U.S. District Court Judge Clarence Cooper heard arguments in a motion for preliminary injunction filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights, which represents several plaintiffs who say their lives are suffering "irreparable harm" from Georgia’s sex offender restrictions, considered the toughest in the nation.

Among the plaintiffs in the class action suit filed against Gov. Sonny Perdue is Janet Jenkins Allison, a former Huddle House manager from Dahlonega who was convicted of statutory rape when her 15-year-old daughter became pregnant. Allison was accused of not doing enough to stop her daughter from becoming sexually active and is now one of more than 16,000 people on Georgia’s sex offender registry, including 224 in Hall County.

Thursday’s court hearing was the first in more than a year for federal litigation that was first filed in 2006, when the Southern Center challenged a residency provision that prevented sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school bus stop.

The bus stop provision is on hold under a consent order reached by the parties until a final determination can be made by the court.

This year the state legislature passed Senate Bill 1, which, among its provisions, prevents sex offenders from volunteering in church.

Registered sex offenders already were prevented from working in churches because they are places where children congregate.

Joe Drolet, an assistant attorney general representing the state, told Cooper in Thursday’s hearing that sex offenders who have the appearance of working for a church, even if only volunteering, could use that perception of authority to take advantage of children.
Churches, Drolet said, "are places where that advantage for a sex offender is extremely great."

Lawyers for the Southern Center called several sex offenders to testify that they had been prevented from participating in church activities for fear of facing a prison sentence of 10 to 30 years.

"I have had to turn down requests to speak to church audiences," said Lori Sue Collins, a Henry County woman who was convicted of statutory rape for having sex with a 15-year-old when she was 39. Collins said she was involved in prison ministries and felt "compelled" to tell her story of redemption to church groups, but now was prevented from doing so under the new law.

"It’s very depressing," Collins said through tears.

Omar Howard, a College Park sex offender who served 14 years in prison for false imprisonment and manslaughter, testified that he, too, was no longer able to tell church gatherings about being saved.

Howard acknowledged under cross-examination that the new law did not prevent him from worshipping in church.

Southern Center legal counsel Gerry Weber claimed that probation officers, sheriffs deputies and other authorities have been confused by what the new law means because the law provides no definition of "volunteer."

"Law enforcement is making up the rules as it goes," Weber said.

David Hudson, an attorney representing the Georgia Sheriffs Association, was present for Thursday’s arguments as an observer.

"The position of the sheriffs is this: They want to know what the law is, what they can enforce and what they cannot enforce," Hudson told the judge.

Among the arguments presented by the Southern Center in the past is that by having so many restrictions on sex offenders on where they can live, offenders may fail to register altogether and "go underground," or abscond, preventing sheriffs from knowing their whereabouts.

But Assistant Attorney General Devon Orland told the court that the rate of sex offenders who have absconded in Georgia has remained steady over the last few years, "which certainly seems to indicate that it’s not that difficult for these people to find a place to live."

Cooper took the matter of church volunteering under advisement and will rule at a later date. The judge also must decide whether the litigation can go forward as a class-action suit or whether the complaints from the plaintiffs are too varied and individualized to be brought as a group.