Pittsboro, N.C. — A judge in Chatham County ruled Thursday that part of the state law restricting the activities of registered sex offenders is to too vague to be enforced, and he declared it unconstitutional.
Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour also dismissed criminal charges against two men who had been indicted under the law because they were around children while attending church.
State lawmakers expanded restrictions on sex offenders last year by banning them from being within 300 feet of any place intended for the use, care or supervision of children and from "any place where minors gather for regularly scheduled educational, recreational or social programs."
James Nichols and Frank DeMaio were indicted in May on charges of violating the law by attending Moncure Baptist Church, which has a nursery and regular programs for children.
Both men are registered sex offenders. Nichols was convicted twice of indecent liberties with a teen girl and most recently of attempted second-degree rape in 2003. DeMaio was convicted twice of taking indecent liberties with children.
They challenged the state law, saying it was too broad and denied them their right to attend the church of their choice.
Chatham County authorities maintained that the men could get private counseling from ministers or attend a church that doesn't have a Sunday school, nursery or youth programs.
Baddour ruled that lawmakers could have used less drastic means to keep sex offenders away from children, noting they carved out exceptions to allow sex offenders to go on school property to vote or to pick up their own children from school.
"The state has not closely drawn the statute to avoid unnecessary abridgment of associational freedoms in achieving its objectives," he wrote in his 16-page ruling. "Additionally, there are a host of protected religious activities abridged by this statute which do not serve the compelling governmental interest."
Thirty-six states establish zones where sex offenders cannot live or visit. Some states provide exceptions for churches, but many do not.
Baddour let stand the portion of the law that prohibits sex offenders from "the premises of any place intended primarily for the use, care, or supervision of minors," such as schools, children's museums, day care centers and playgrounds.
The Chatham County District Attorney's Office is appealing the ruling.