In my denomination, as in most other mainline Protestant ones and the Roman Catholic Church, among others, clergy and lay volunteers are required to undergo anti-sex abuse training, which includes a criminal background check.
Given the wariness about sex abuse in the wake of decades of scandal and some highly publicized crimes, how would clergy or congregants feel if a freed sex offender showed up for worship? How do laws differ state to state? Have they been challenged? What's constitutional and what's not? Are there alternative ways to minister to released sex offenders?
These were a few of the questions that went through my mind when reading an article on the topic of sex-offender laws in North Carolina from the Citizen-Times.com sent to by Lee, a GR reader. Only a few of them were addressed in the story, which discussed the implications of North Carolina laws that keep sex offenders away from places with youngsters.
Props to writer Jordan Schrader for covering the issue at all -- it's not one I've seen examined much in the news. Here's the punchy lede:
If they want to repent their sins, sex offenders in Buncombe County and elsewhere had better do it at home.
Some church services are among the activities that are off limits because of tough restrictions on registered sex offenders' movements, passed all but unanimously last year by state lawmakers who invoked a young girl's tragic murder.
This week, though, the General Assembly will likely start to rethink a ban that keeps sex offenders from going within 300 feet of a place "intended primarily for the use, care or supervision of minors."
But then things get a little confusing. A Fayetteville legislator is quoted as saying that the General Assembly might have acted unconstitutionally -- but the reporter doesn't quote him or anyone else saying why. The story doesn't tell us what the legislators are considering doing to change the 300-foot law.
There also seems to be a subtle assumption that all houses of worship in North Carolina are Christian. As reader Lee pointed out, the quote directly addressing whether registered offenders belong in worship is from a legislator, Bruce Goforth. He certainly seems to make that assumption.
Goforth, among the most vocal advocates in the legislature for sex-offender restrictions, said the far-reaching ban was an unintended consequence.
"We want them in church to try to turn their lives toward Christ," Goforth said, so "they would no longer prey on society."
Making that the sole reaction on the question of offenders in worship surely doesn't reflect the breadth of the feelings of worshippers. The article itself doesn't spend a lot of time going beneath the surface, where lurks a few challenging questions -- can sex offenders ever be rehabillitated? In Christian terms, can they be redeemed? What rights do they have? Will this set up a church-state conflict? One gets the impression, from the list of upcoming bill tacked on near the article's end, that some legislators are moving towards tightening the laws. If a more permissive law about where they can worship is enacted, it will be the exception in North Carolina rather than the rule.
Picture of the U.S. Constitution is from Wikimedia Commons