Courts & Crime

N.C. law that bans sex offender from church faces challenge

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — James Nichols said he was flabbergasted when a Chatham County sheriff's deputy arrested him in March for a simple weekly activity: going to church.

Nichols, 31, had served six years in prison for indecent liberties with a teenage girl and attempted second-degree rape. He was released last September and started attending Moncure Baptist Church. He met with the pastor, disclosed his crimes and often sat in the front row for worship.

But after the Chatham sheriff's office investigated an alleged sexual assault by another person in the church parking lot in March, Nichols was arrested because he was attending the church, which has a child care facility on its premises.

“Anyone in this world has a right to practice their religion, and whether they've made any mistake in their life, they should have the right,” Nichols said.

But a state law that took effect in December forbids registered sex offenders from being within 300 feet of a school, playground, day care or children's museum.

“The law we passed doesn't let them go to church, because there are nurseries in churches,” said state Rep. Verla Insko, D-Chapel Hill, the only legislator in the House and Senate to oppose the law.

Nichols, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, is challenging the law in Chatham County. A coalition of social workers and psychologists who treat sex abusers have been fighting it in the legislature. Some think churches should play a role in rehabilitating offenders.

Proponents, though, want to keep sexual offenders away from children at all costs, even after they've finished their prison time.

“As far as I'm concerned, they've lost all their rights — to go to church ... to go to McDonald's to get a cheeseburger if they've got the slides,” said state Sen. David Hoyle, the Gastonia Democrat who sponsored the law. “They have made that choice. They have imposed that on themselves. I didn't.”