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Barred from Church

Sex-offender laws are raising questions about the right to worship.

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 registries1 and passing laws to limit2 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.

creating sex offender registries1In 1994, Congress passed the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Act, which required states to create a registration program for sex offenders.

limit2In Florida, such laws have grown so restrictive that dozens of sex offenders have resorted to living in the same small town.

“To protect the public, we must teach empathy and restore people into some form of community wherein they can be held accountable and allowed to grow as human beings,” says Sam Caldwell, a tech programmer who is currently on the registry after spending 10 years in Texas prisons. “If, alternatively, we alienate and cast out people forever, how can we expect them to respect the rules of a community to which they no longer belong?”

Caldwell is also keen to point out that most studies of sex offenders, some of which are touted by the U.S. Department of Justice, have found their rate of reoffending to be low, and that most sex crimes do not involve strangers. Some people on the registry had consensual sex as teenagers with someone just below the legal threshold.

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.

Laurence Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard University, says such laws are sound as long as there is a consistent approach between secular and religious contexts. “If the county’s policy is to permit registered sex offenders to attend school events like ball games as long as school administrators have warning and the offenders are monitored,” he says, “then a similar exception needs to be made for church attendance as long as pastors are aware and agree to monitor the offenders.”

As Tribe notes, it’s really up to the pastors, and for the most part churches make their own rules on whether to allow those on the registry to attend or volunteer. Some of those discussions — about whether to allow sex offenders into churches, whether to seek them out if they’re already attending, and whether to kick them out if they’re found — are taking place online. One pastor, in an advice column for his peers, called access for sex offenders “one of those Big Pink Elephant in the Room issues that no one wants to talk about.”

On a Mormon forum, one woman described learning that someone on a sex-offender registry was attending her church. She was bothered because “members of the ward were not informed that a sex offender was among us” but also worried that “we were engaging in gossip.” Her post elicited 114 comments. One commenter responded, “You think you can limit [a ban on sex offenders] to just the people you think are a danger, but that’s impossible, and once you’ve banned the people you think are dangerous someone else is going to come up with a group they think are dangerous and on it goes.”

Some churches have devised creative ways to allow people on the registry to attend, allowing them to be chaperoned or even banning children. A Wisconsin church offered a specific service for people on the sex-offender registry. Nobody showed up, according to Elite Daily, but that may have been because church leaders did not publicize the service; they were worried about attracting protesters.