|Case Pits Church Volunteering against Protection of Children
By Walter Jones
November 24, 2008
Most Georgians probably believe that children should be protected from known sexual predators, and they would also believe that there should be few restrictions on how a person participates in their church activities.
A recent change to state law puts those two notions on a collision course, and a federal judge must pick a side.
For Lori Collins, not being able to volunteer or give her testimonials in church amounts to not only inconvenience but also an infringement on her right to be true to her religion.
"I'm required by my faith to do these things. Christ has made us a fisher of men," she said.
On the other side is Gov. Sonny Perdue, whose son is a minister and who has led prayer sessions himself, most notably to end the drought.
"The state's foremost obligation is to keep the people of Georgia safe," he said about the law in 2006. "This includes doing everything within our power to keep sexual predators away from children."
The case of the church volunteering prohibition is part of a lawsuit filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights on behalf of the lead plaintiff, Wendy Whitaker of Harlem, Ga. She is on the sex-offender registry for something that is no longer illegal -- consensual sex between a 17-year-old, her, and a 15-year-old.
Now 29, Whitaker has been ordered to move from the home her husband owns because it's too close to a daycare center. Friday, the Southern Center asked a state judge to keep her in the home.
That's after the federal judge, Clarence Cooper, rejected Whitaker's request when he considered it Nov. 13, but he delayed any decision on the church-volunteering part of the suit while he smokes it over more.
Cooper still hasn't ruled on another aspect of the case, whether living within 1,000 feet of school bus stops should be illegal for the 10,000 people on the state's sexual-offenders registry. He has only accepted a temporary agreement against enforcing it.
A mapmaker testified in Cooper's court that in Columbia County where Whitaker lives, just 606 of the 51,000 parcels of land could legally be used for housing because of the churches, daycare centers and 5,300 bus stops.
However, he acknowledged under cross-examination that 50 people on the registry had found places to live in the county.
The point of the law's change, which took effect July 1, is to keep children from becoming vulnerable at church, especially when around adults with authority, according to Joseph Drolet of the Georgia Attorney General's Office. A Sunday school teacher, choir director or even someone who helps set up the sound equipment takes on a level of authority in a child's eye, he said.
Abuse of authority wasn't conjecture in Collins' case. She was 39 when she had a party at her home with flowing alcohol and had sex with a minor.
"People who are ministers are looked up to," Drolet said to her. "There is a position of trust."
At one point, she broke down crying on the witness stand as she recounted how the volunteering prohibition ended the sermons she would deliver at churches around the state and the leadership role she had to give up in a ministry program.
She became a licensed minister since her conviction and often goes back to prison to speak to inmates about getting their lives together. The commissioner of the Georgia Department of Corrections encouraged it.
That's because ex-cons exposed to the Bible while behind bars are significantly less likely to commit another crime, according to Andrea Shelton of Heartbound Ministry which sends chaplains to all 37 state prisons.
"If an inmate is involved with studying the word of God while incarcerated, the recidivism rate drops 50 percent," she said, adding that the more involved in church activities, the more stability an ex-con has.
The law hasn't prevented Collins from writing her religious message to be read in juvenile detention facilities, and Drolet notes that it doesn't keep her from worshiping as long as she limits her participation to prayer, listening and following a preacher's lead.
The U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights begins with the First Amendment's opening that government "shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ..." which many scholars indicate how important freedom of religion is. The Southern Center's lawyers argue that the state law does hamper that free exercise thereof.
Cooper started his career as a legal-aid lawyer for a year and was a prosecutor for six years after a stint in the Army. He was a judge at three levels in the state system before President Clinton elevated him to the federal bench in 1994. He is perhaps most noted for two cases, one dealing with a predator of children and one dealing with religion. He presided in the case of Wayne Williams who was convicted of molesting and murdering a series of children in Atlanta, and he ruled against Cobb County for putting stickers in textbooks questioning the theory of evolution.
As these two issues compete in one case, Cooper will draw upon his experience as he considers the lawsuit. Who knows, he may even resort to prayer.
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