RALEIGH, N.C. – Convicted sex offender James Nichols said he was trying to better himself by going to church. But the police who arrested him explained: The church is off-limits because it has a day care center.
Now Nichols is challenging North Carolina’s sex-offender laws in a case that pits the constitutional right to religious freedom against the state’s goal of protecting the public from child molesters.
“I just started asking the question, ‘Why? Why am I being treated this way after trying to better myself?’ ” said Nichols, a 31-year-old who was convicted of indecent liberties with a teen girl and attempted second-degree rape. “The law gives you no room to better yourself.”
At issue in Nichols’ case and a similar one in Georgia are day care centers and youth programs at houses of worship where sex offenders can come into proximity with children. Sex offender advocates agree some convicts should not be allowed around children, but they contend barring all offenders denies them support needed to become productive citizens.
“Criminalizing the practice of religion for everyone on the registry will do more harm than good,” said Sara Totonchi, policy director for the Southern Center for Human Rights. “With these laws, states are driving people on the registry from their faith community and depriving them of the rehabilitative influence of the church.”
Thirty-six states establish zones where sex offenders cannot live or visit. Some states provide exemptions for churches, but many do not.
In December, North Carolina state legislators barred sex offenders from coming within 300 feet of any place intended primarily for the use, care or supervision of minors.
Three months later, Nichols was arrested at his home after attending Sunday services. He said he was “floored” to learn that he had been picked up because Moncure Baptist Church has a child care center for families attending services.
“I believe wholeheartedly if it wasn’t for God, I don’t know where I’d be today,” he said. “God’s blessed me with learning how to live a better life.”
In Georgia, the Southern Center for Human Rights sued the state in part because the law there prevents offenders from volunteering in places of worship. The lawsuit brought on behalf of Georgia’s 16,000-plus registered sex offenders is pending in federal court.