Should convicted sex offenders be allowed to attend worship services with children? Many faith leaders across the nation grapple with that question.
It's an issue that has sparked a new decision from an Indiana court: The Indianapolis Star reports that the state's Court of Appeals overturned a trial court decision and ruled that "sex offenders are allowed to attend church services even while children are present to attend Sunday school."
More from the Star:
The ruling handed down Tuesday stems from a letter the Boone County sheriff sent to his county’s registered sex offenders in July 2015 informing them of the passage of Indiana’s “serious sex offender” law. The law prohibits “serious sex offenders” from entering “school property.”
School property, under the state's interpretation of the law, includes a church if the church conducts Sunday school or has child care for children of the ages described in the statute. Sex offenders faced arrest and prosecution if they attended such a church.
Citing Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, three unnamed sex offenders sought a court injunction to attend church. They argued that preventing them from attending services, even when children are present, places "a substantial burden on their exercise of religion."
"It is a very serious infringement on rights in telling someone they cannot go to religious services," said Ken Falk, legal director of the ACLU of Indiana, who is representing the sex offenders.
"Everyone seeks religious service for different reasons — to exclude someone seems problematic."
The paper's story offers helpful background on the legal arguments on both sides of the Indiana case.
A follow-up piece — by the Star or another enterprising news organization — might dig deeper into the issue and reflect other key voices.
For example, how do various churches approach this issue? What do victim advocates say about allowing sex offenders in the same pews as kids? Do experts on sex crimes have any insight or advice for houses of worship? These questions, it seems to me, would be relevant for journalists not just in Indiana but all over.
I recently interviewed a Michigan ministry leader for The Christian Chronicle. That leader, Coleman Yoakum, noted that the addict-friendly church his group planted "recently launched a second service that doesn’t allow children to come in order to be a place that the sex offender community is allowed to attend.”
Several years ago, I did a piece for Christianity Today with the headline "Modern-Day Lepers."
The opening of that 2009 article:
Convicted of indecent liberties with a teenage girl when he was 20 and attempted second-degree rape years later, James Nichols served his prison time—and then found himself back in police custody.
His offense: going to church.
Authorities said the 31-year-old Nichols violated a new North Carolina law that bars sex offenders from coming within 300 feet of any place intended primarily for use, care, or supervision of minors.
Nichols was arrested after worship at Moncure Baptist Church because the church has child-care facilities for families attending services. He is challenging the constitutionality of the law, claiming it violates his religious freedom.
Laws in 36 states establish where sex offenders can — and cannot — live or visit, an Associated Press survey found. Some states provide exemptions for churches, but many do not.
"One of the most vexing problems facing our society, and more particularly the church, is how to deal with sex offenders," said Pat Nolan, vice president of Prison Fellowship. "As one pastor expressed to me, 'Jesus taught us to be forgiving. However, he also has made me shepherd of my flock, and it is my responsibility to protect them from the wolves.'"
Financial considerations, not just theological ones, enter the equation:
Increasingly, however, liability insurance carriers demand that church leaders address the issue of registered sex offenders in their congregations, said Kim Estes, education and outreach director for peace of Mind, a Bellevue, Washington-based nonprofit.
Given the Indiana ruling, an update on how this issue has developed nationally might be interesting.
Go for it, Godbeat friends.