Graham County Sherriff Danny Millsaps made news headlines last year when he penned a letter to all registered sex offenders in the county, barring them from attending church services.
He cited a portion of a North Carolina law that keeps sex offenders from coming within 300 feet of areas designated for children, effectively fencing many worship facilities, since church nurseries and youth educational spaces are often located nearby. The law has raised legal questions since its passing in 2008.
A U.S. District Court Judge struck down the 300-foot rule April 22, saying it violates First Amendment rights.
“[The clause] greatly interferes with restricted sex offenders’ ability to be present at public parks, libraries, movie theaters and houses of worship, among other places associated with significant First Amendment activity,” said Judge James Beaty Jr. for the Middle District of North Carolina.
The decision applies to the second of three clauses in N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-208.18(a). A previous ruling threw out the third section of the law, which was “unconstitutionally vague” in its definition of places designated for children, according to the court document.
The first and primary portion of the law remains in place, barring sex offenders from knowingly being “on the premises of any place intended primarily for the use, care, or supervision of minors.”
Although the judge issued a permanent injunction against law enforcement officers from arresting individuals for breaking the 300-foot-rule, churches can still set their own policies and procedures regarding child safety.
John Small, legal counsel for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, said there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution.
He said churches must consider congregation size and property layout to determine what’s best in order to minister to sex offenders while at the same time protecting minors.