A legislative amendment goes into effect today (Sept. 1) which clarifies a North Carolina law barring registered sex offenders with an offense against a minor from coming within 300 feet of areas designated for children. The law is commonly known as the Jessica Lunsford Act, initially passed in 2009.
The change came in response to two federal injunctions against the law. The most recent ruling struck down the proximity clause of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-208.18(a) because it violated the First Amendment.
The 300-foot rule effectively fences many church properties, along with other public spaces such as libraries, parks and courthouses, when child-care facilities or youth educational spaces are located nearby.
Judge James A. Beaty Jr. of the Middle District of North Carolina ruled April 22 that the clause was “unconstitutionally overbroad.” He said it restricted “significant First Amendment activity” – such as church attendance – for registered sex offenders who have not committed an offense against a minor.
The amendment, which was signed into law July 21 by Gov. Pat McCrory, narrows the 300-foot rule’s application to sex offenders deemed by a criminal or civil proceeding to be a “danger to minors.”
Legislators also revised part of the statute that was considered too vague by a federal judge. The clause restricted registered sex offenders from entering spaces designated for “regularly scheduled” children’s activities, but did not include any indication of event frequency or examples of such places. In response, lawmakers specified restricted areas as those premises where children “frequently congregate,” and added the time constraint, “when minors are present.”
Other changes to the law included an increase to the age threshold for victims classified as minors from 16 to 18 years old, broadening the scope of the statute. Fairgrounds were also designated as off-limits for sex offenders during periods of time in which fair activities are conducted.
Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition, expressed favor for the amendment in a statement to the Biblical Recorder.
“Sen. Buck Newton championed clarifying changes that both protect children under the age of 18 from being exposed to criminals who have a history of sexual assault against children and also provide registered sex offenders more access to churches and other places when minors are not present,” she said.
“I believe this strikes the right balance between putting the safety of children first while allowing people who have committed sexual assault the freedom to worship and experience the grace and forgiveness only God can provide.”