Judge Rules Sex Offenders May Attend Church

Special Report - December 22, 2009

Part of a statute that regulates activity by registered sex offenders in order to limit their association with children has been ruled unconstitutional. In a ruling issued December 17, Chatham County Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour found certain provisions of the law to be “unconstitutionally overbroad” and “unconstitutionally vague.” Two registered sex offenders challenged the statute, after they were arrested for attending church services because their presence on the church premises violated the law’s ban on registered sex offenders being “within 300 feet of any location intended primarily for the use, care, or supervision of minors” and “at any place where minors gather for regularly scheduled educational, recreational, or social programs.”

In his 16-page ruling, Judge Baddour found that the above prohibitions “implicate the rights of association and to practice religion, which are fundamental rights protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.” He stated that “The state’s interest in protecting the public and protecting minors is a compelling governmental interest.” He then went on to say, “The state has not closely drawn the statute to avoid unnecessary abridgment of associational freedoms in achieving its objectives.” He added that “the statutes fail to provide law enforcement officials with adequate guidance concerning the precise scope of the activities they aspire to proscribe.” The Chatham County District Attorney’s Office is appealing the ruling.

One of the primary questions as to the interpretation of the law was over whether it is unlawful for a sex offender to even be in those areas described in the law, or if it is only unlawful when children are present. The law’s application to houses of worship led some members of the General Assembly to propose HB 1317—Sex Offender Registry Changes during the 2009 legislative session. HB 1317 would provide that sex offenders are only barred from such premises when children are present, and would include an exception for worship services, similar to that already in place for parents who are present at their child’s school, or for voting, or for emergency medical care. The bill passed the House and remains eligible for consideration by the Senate when the legislature reconvenes for the “Short Session” in May 2010.

These provisions that are at question in this case are part of the so-called “Jessica Lunsford Act,” which was passed by the General Assembly in 2008 to enact stiffer penalties for child sex offenders. The Act is named after a 9-year-old former resident of Gaston County, N.C. who was kidnapped, raped, and murdered in Florida in 2005. It establishes a minimum penalty of 25 years in prison, lifetime satellite-based monitoring for child sex offenders who rape or commit certain other sexual offenses against minors, and increases the criminal penalties for first, second and third degree sexual exploitation of a minor, and for promoting prostitution of a minor. Other related statutes require sex offenders to register their email addresses and other online identifiers in the statewide sex offender registry in order to enable more effective monitoring and tracking of the offenders’ email and Internet use, prohibit convicted sex offenders from accessing social networking Web sites, such as MySpace and Facebook, and clarify that the operators of these websites may be held civilly liable for failing to “make reasonable efforts” to prevent registered sex offenders from accessing them.

Copyright © 2009. North Carolina Family Policy Council. All rights reserved.

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