Law challenged after sex offender arrested for going to church
Posted October 29, 2009 5:12 p.m. EDT
Updated October 29, 2009 8:05 p.m. EDT
Pittsboro, N.C. — Lawyers for a registered sex offender appeared in court Thursday to challenge the constitutionality of a law under which he was charged for going to church.
James Nichols, 31, was arrested on March 28 after he attended services at Moncure Baptist Church. He was charged under a nearly year-old state law that bans sex offenders from coming within 300 feet of any place intended for the use, care or supervision of children.
Moncure Baptist has a nursery and regularly scheduled programs for children.
In a two-hour hearing in Superior Court in Pittsboro Thursday, Nichols' lawyers argued that the law is too broad, doesn't exempt churches and violates constitutional rights to religious freedom and to assembly.
"He engages in free speech, he walks down the aisle, he sings with people, and he reads the Bible," defense attorney Glenn Gerding said. "So this is not just a case about the free exercise of religion; it is also a case about assembling together with people who want to assemble together."
Nichols has been convicted twice of indecent liberties with a teen girl and most recently of attempted second-degree rape in 2003. He spent a total of 6 years and 2 months in prison on those charges.
Nichols said that he found God in prison, and when he was released last September, Moncure Baptist welcomed him with open arms.
“James seemed very sincere in everything he said” about turning his life over to God, Moncure Baptist Church Matt Garrett testified.
Garrett said the church has a nursery that is not sanctioned by the state. "It is strictly a babysitting service for people with children."
Prosecutor Kayley Taber said Nichols and another sex offender, Frank DeMaio, were arrested after the Chatham County Sheriff's Office received a complaint.
"This was not an investigation targeted at local churches," Taber said.
DeMaio, who was convicted twice of taking indecent liberties with children, has joined Nichols in challenging the law.
Judge Allen Baddour did not make a decision on the issue Thursday but set another hearing for Nov. 12.
If Baddour declares the law unconstitutional, the case could go all the way up to the state Supreme Court.
Thirty-six states establish zones where sex offenders cannot live or visit. Some states provide exceptions for churches, but many do not.