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 arrive for the assembly, go directly to the sanctuary, and exit immediately when the service was over. If she needed to use the restroom, specific members were assigned to accompany her.
"She complied for a period of time," Chambers said, "but then began to bend/break our requirements, so we told her that she was no longer welcome and notified the church that she then tried to attend."
A major problem, in Nolan's view, is that many sex offender statutes are written so broadly that they "lump many people convicted of relatively minor offenses in with the hardcore sex offenders."
For example, teenagers who "moon" someone as a prank or a 17-year-old who has consensual sex with his girlfriend can be deemed sex offenders for the rest of their lives, he said.
Such "overly broad definitions" divert attention from pedophiles who truly pose a threat, Nolan said.
"I have heard it said that sex offenders are modern-day lepers," he said. "That is probably pretty accurate. And we know that Jesus didn't shun lepers. He loved them and healed them. He expects us to do the same."
But in some cases, Christians take their strong belief in redemption too far and fail to monitor offenders properly, said Deborah A. Ausburn, a Georgia attorney who defends day cares, camps, and churches against sex abuse claims.
"It's at the core of our spiritual identity, Most of us grew up on stories of sinners who accomplished great things for God, and very few of us have encountered true depravity in person," said Ausburn, who attends Church of Our Redeemer in Marietta, Georgia.
"So, the power of redemption is more real to us than the power of sin," she added. "So, we are apt to let our guard down more than we should."
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.