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.

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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.

For many churches, insurance mandates and lawsuits have sparked formal training on sex abuse prevention and even "contracts" that offenders must sign before attending, Estes said.

"Lack of background checks in the past, especially in situations where adults would be in contact with children, made churches magnets for sex offenders," Estes said. "Churches are now realizing that an organized plan in place … is a better, safer solution."

Winning Kids Inc., based in Richmond Hill, Ontario, produced Plan to Protect, a protection manual used in about 4,000 churches in the United States and Canada.

The manual advocates designating someone in the congregation to accompany a sex offender while at church. "Hopefully with an attitude of friendship rather than an obvious guard," said Diane Roblin-Lee, Winning Kids' director of communications, "thus protecting the children while encouraging the person who has already been punished by the justice system to strengthen his or her determination never to reoffend."

In the North Carolina case, attorney Glenn Gerding argues that the law is unconstitutional and takes away Nichols' "best hope for rehabilitation, healing, stability and redemption" — and that of more than 11,000 other registered sex offenders.

"Given our state's strict residency and employment restrictions, as well as societal discrimination against and vilification of sex offenders," Gerding said in a court filing, "churches are often the last hope for many sex offenders who need the stability and guidance a church pastor and church family can provide."

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Related Elsewhere:

Other articles on sex offenders in church include:

Sex offender sues to attend church | Nichols is challenging North Carolina's sex-offender laws in a case that pits the constitutional right to religious freedom against the state's goal of protecting the public from child molesters. (Associated Press, October 8, 2009)
Should Sex Offenders Be Barred from Church? | Courts there have waded into questions of religion, ruling in favor of the right of offenders to partake in activities including volunteering in a church kitchen, attending adult Sunday School and singing in a church choir. (Time magazine, October 14, 2009)

Christianity Today's sister publication Your Church wrote about a church in Kentucky that ordained a sex offender in September. The church moved its location in November.

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