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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.'"

At the South Whidbey Assembly of God in Langley, Washington, church leaders try to balance grace and compassion with due diligence, said senior pastor Matt Chambers.

"We have always tried to act from the position of the damage that would be done if someone offended/reoffended and we had known about it and did nothing or told no one," said Chambers, whose rural congregation averages Sunday attendance between 250 and 300.

In the case of one woman convicted of sex crimes against boys and girls, the church laid out specific guidelines, he said: She'd ...

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