Churches have traditionally been places of sanctuary. But given the number of children around, some people are asking: should they be?
In December, a new North Carolina law went into effect that prohibits registered sex offenders from coming within 300 feet of any facility "devoted to the use, care or supervision of minors." In Georgia, offenders can't live or work within 1,000 feet. And inevitably, several cases have gone to court in which RSO's have claimed that, in the process, their right to worship has been violated. Writing in the Kansas City Star over the weekend, Laura Bauer outlined the dilemma: "Sex offenders across the country face laws and regulations that keep them from living near schools, parks, bus stops and pools. Some neighborhoods created association rules banning offenders from residing there. Now churches are in the mix, trying to welcome parishioners while draping a protective cloak over the children and others in the next pew."
Some churches cited in the article impose restrictions: a registered sex offender may only use certain parts of a facility, or avoid contact with others; recently a New Hampshire Jehovah's Witnesses temple agreed to let a RSO attend services with a chaperone from the congregation. Although this piece focuses on churches, for religious leaders of any faith, this has got to be a tough issue, balancing the needs of people who are trying to get spiritual guidance - and the safety of a congregation. As one minister quoted in Bauer's article puts it, "By ministering to them, it's not necessarily saying, ‘We trust you,'...It does say that ‘within Christ, we have hope for you.'" Religious institutions, by their nature, do operate under a different system: to cite a different kind of example, Bernie Madoff's synagogue felt compelled to make it clear that they'd accept him as a congregant - and this after he had defrauded not only half the congregation but the institution itself. Forgiveness, as they say, is divine - even when it goes against the human part.
The ACLU has sided with plaintiffs in several states. As the ACLU's Katy Parker tells Time, "It's unbelievable that the N.C. state legislature and the people of North Carolina would not want someone to go to church for spiritual reasons and for rehabilitative reasons." Of course, that's probably not most peoples' rationale. Another constitutional law expert quoted by Time puts it this way: "If the moment you enter a church you don a cloak of immunity from the rule of law, then churches would become sanctuaries for crime."
Some thought-provoking comments appear on the "Crime Scene Kansas City" site, which linked to Bauer's article. One commenter makes the very salient point that "sex offender," as currently intrepreted, can mean a lot of things, from an 18-year-old sleeping with a slightly younger partner to (in very rare cases) public urination. As such, it behooves any such congregation to look into the charges and record of any such RSO. Most interesting, to me, was the comment by this man:
As an RSO for the last 10 years, I have found peace and compassion in my church. I am Roman Catholic and I have followed my own personal restrictions. I attend early morning mass (very few children at 7 AM). I avoid going to activities where there are children. This is not imposed by my parish, but this is my desicion to avoid any problems and protect the church. We are all sinners and by coming to terms with our sinfulness through giving our lives to God, Jesus, Buddha, Allah or whatever deity you believe is when we will find peace and forgiveness.
With Open Arms And Open Eyes, Churches Minister To Sex Offenders [Kansas City Star]
Should Sex Offenders Be Barred From Church? [Time]
Should Churches Welcome Sex Offenders? [Crime Scene KC]