INDIANAPOLIS – A lawsuit filed on behalf of two registered sex offenders cites Indiana's new religious objections law in arguing they've been wrongly prohibited from worshipping at churches that have schools on the same property.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed the lawsuit Wednesday on behalf of two unnamed sex offenders, one of whom belongs to a Fort Wayne church and another who has attended an Elkhart church.
The lawsuit claims that a new state law banning many sex offenders from going onto school property at any time presents an unjustified burden on the men's religious liberties under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Ken Falk, the ACLU of Indiana's legal director, called the additional sex offender restrictions absurd.
"The Legislature passes a law which says sex offenders cannot go into schools and it is being applied to people who are going to church or other religious observances during a time that there's no school in session," Falk said. "The law prohibits them from walking on that property — it's a felony to do so."
The religious objections law and the tougher sex offender restrictions both took effect Wednesday. The lawsuit said both men have regularly attended Sunday services and other events at their churches, but now fear being arrested if they do so.
The ban on sex offenders going onto school property gained little attention as it sailed through the state Legislature this year — clearing both the House and Senate without any votes cast against it.
A national outcry erupted after Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed the religious objections law in late March, with critics saying it would provide a legal defense for discrimination against gays, lesbians and others. It prohibits any government actions that would "substantially burden" a person's ability to follow his or her religious beliefs.
Douglas Laycock, a constitutional scholar at the University of Virginia Law School who helped win passage of the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, said he believes the ACLU lawsuit has merit and that making it a crime to attend church services is a major burden on a person's religious practices.
"If you have any hope of rehabilitation, religion works for some people. Telling them they can't go to church doesn't make much sense," said Laycock, the lead writer of an analysis supporting the Indiana religious objections law. The analysis was frequently cited by the bill's sponsors.
Laycock said he's not aware of similar cases involving religious objections laws in the 19 other states with similar statutes.
Indiana Senate President Pro Tem David Long issued a statement blasting the ACLU of Indiana's filing of the lawsuit after the group opposed the religious objections law as it was debated in the General Assembly.
"The ACLU used to be a staunch supporter of religious liberty," said Long, a Republican. "Now they've reduced themselves to making a mockery of it. On top of this, they also support endangering our children while championing the rights of sex offenders. It's a sad day for the ACLU."
The lawsuit, filed in Elkhart County Superior Court, names the prosecutors and sheriffs of Allen and Elkhart counties as defendants. Neither prosecutor's office had immediate comment Thursday on the lawsuit.
Falk said the lawsuit is serious and that the group has long worked to protect the right to worship.
"Regardless of what we said about the law, it is the law now," he said. "This is a very conservative use of the law."