Sex Offenders Sue in Georgia for Right to Volunteer in Churches

Sex offenders in Georgia are suing for the right to volunteer in houses of worship as a new measure already approved by lawmakers has some critics up in arms.

The Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights filed a lawsuit Tuesday on behalf of the 15,400 sex offenders on Georgia’s state registry. Georgia already has one of the nation's toughest sex offender statutes, and the center is hoping to stop the added measure, set to go into effect July 1.

The new provision would make it illegal for sex offenders to sing in adult choirs, prepare for events or cook meals in church kitchens. Violating the law could spell a prison term of 10 to 30 years, which sponsors said is a vital addition to help keep children safe.

"It’s designed to protect children, to keep people who have a history of pedophilia or sex crimes against children away from children so they’re less likely to repeat," said David Ralston, a Republican state representative and one of the measure’s sponsors.

"This latest filing is simply another tactic by those people who disagree with the whole purpose of the law and try to chip away at it until it’s abolished."

But some religious leaders say the law would undermine the positive effects of religion.

"Thieves, robbers, murderers — we give them all a second chance," said Mark Hanson, senior pastor at New Beginnings Tabernacle, a small evangelical ministry in Buchanan, Ga.

"It seems like under the sex offender law you’re banned permanently from society," he said. "Without forgiveness and mercy, how do we expect anyone to start over?"

For the past two years Hanson has worked closely with 47-year-old Lori Collins of Henry County, Ga., a named plaintiff in the motion. Collins was listed on the state registry after having sex with a 15-year-old boy when she was 39.

After serving a three-year jail term, during which she completed the Department of Corrections Faith and Character Program, Collins became a licensed minister. She volunteers for two small evangelical ministries and participates regularly in prison ministry outreach.

But Collins said she would never volunteer for any activity involving children.

"I understand where [the law is] coming from," she said. "I want my [own] children and grandchildren protected. But I’ve turned my life around. The root of my life is good."

Yet lawmakers stressed that former sex offenders won’t necessarily be barred from volunteer work for life.

"Let’s not forget that people on the sex offender registry have ways of getting off it," said Eric Johnson, president pro tem of the state Senate and author of the legislation. Johnson told that with the passage of time and through appeals, individuals can lobby to have their names removed.

Proponents of the measure also stressed that the impositions on sex offenders were a necessary outcome of their crimes.

"When you do wrong, there are consequences," Ralston said. "And one of the consequences that the people of Georgia appreciate is that we will restrict where people can live and work and volunteer so that they don’t have proximity to minor children."

Omar Howard, another of the five named plaintiffs in the suit, was dismayed by the new provision. Howard, 33, was added to the registry after being convicted of the false imprisonment of a minor during a 1993 burglary — but he’s never been convicted of a sex crime.

Howard became involved in a Christian ministry during his 14 years and 10 months in prison. Since his release last year, he’s been an active participant in several churches and outreach programs. He is involved in his church choir, speaks at church activities and served as a mentor for troubled youth.

Howard said the new law would cripple his ability to give back to his community through his church and to help others avoid some of the same mistakes he made.

"I always had a strong desire to make sure I changed myself and put myself in a better predicament," Howard said. "I don’t think I can call myself a man of God unless I extend the same hand that’s been handed to me. It’s a real blow to your faith."

But proponents said nothing in the law prevents sex offenders from attending a place of worship and that critics are misinterpreting the intent of the provision.

Ralston told that the law was revised to include the "volunteer language" so people who cannot work in schools, churches or day-care centers won’t be able to avoid the prohibition by claiming they were volunteering at those places.

The restriction against volunteering at a church or other places children congregate was added at the recommendation of local sheriffs, Ralston said.

But Georgia’s sex-offender statute is still a target for some advocates, who say the law may do more harm than good.

"The church is in the redemption business," said Floyd Rose, pastor emeritus at The Church at Pine Hill in Valdosta, Ga., whose sworn affidavit was part of Tuesday’s motion. "If [offenders] come to a place where they want you to redeem them, and you take that away, where do you leave them?"