Georgia's sex offender law blocks religious redemption

PERSONA NON GRATA: Omar Howard's parole officer told him he shouldn't give testimony during church services.

Lori Collins, an ordained minister from Henry County who found religion in prison, is no longer allowed to work with church groups that perform prison outreach.
Andrew Norton of Cobb County has been told he can't sing in his church choir or help set up for church events. Steven Lee Williams of Polk County is forbidden from playing drums at services.

Churches frequently invite College Park's Omar Howard to offer testimony about how God rescued him from a life of violent crime. Eventually, he hopes to join the ministry. For the time being, however, Howard risks a mandatory 10-year term if he so much as performs a Bible reading before a congregation.
This past Thursday, lawyers with the Southern Center for Human Rights argued in federal court that a new law unconstitutionally criminalizes religious practice by making it illegal for people on Georgia's sex offender registry to volunteer at a church. A judge's ruling is expected within weeks.
It was the latest challenge to a controversial law that targets registered sex offenders with wide-ranging restrictions and stiff punishments. Initially authored by state House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons, and adopted in 2006, the law was overhauled by the Legislature this year after large chunks of it had been thrown out by various courts.
Even so, the chipping away continus. Last month, the state Supreme Court struck down a provision to send homeless sex offenders to prison for being unable to register a valid address with their county sheriff's office. The plaintiff in that suit, William James Santos, had spent a year in a Hall County jail and was facing a life sentence for failing to register his address – even though he didn't have an address.

If you think aspects of the sex offender law seem to defy common sense, welcome to the club.

"My parole officer doesn't understand it," says Howard, the would-be minister. "He told me it's safer just to stay away from church."

Howard, 34, admits he used to be a rough character. He spent 14 years behind bars for voluntary manslaughter, armed robbery and false imprisonment of a minor during a 1993 home invasion. That last charge landed him on the sex offender registry despite not having been convicted of a sex crime.

During his long incarceration, Howard got religion; he led Bible study and became a chaplain's aide. "My goal is to do full-time ministry," he says. "That was the only hope I had that got me through my time."
After entering probation last year, he devoted much of his time talking at churches about his experiences in an effort to warn at-risk young men away from the thug life. He's even spoken at the invitation of the Georgia Department of Corrections and the State Board of Pardons and Paroles.

But as of July 1, when the newest incarnation of the sex offender law went into effect, Howard had to give up most of his church-related activities. The law offers no guidance as to what constitutes volunteering; His parole officer has told him to no longer sing in the choir or take part in revivals, seminars or prayer vigils. Howard still accepts invitations to visit churches, but he's limited to sitting in the congregation. Offering testimony is off-limits.

In a court brief, Howard complains that the law "interferes with my religious freedom and prohibits me from expressing my strongly held religious beliefs." He adds that none of his previous church activities involved being around minors unsupervised.
Also testifying, Andrea Shelton, founder and president of Heartbound Ministries, a prison outreach program, told Judge Clarence Cooper that "religion makes recidivism less likely" for all convicts. Shelton explained that most churches routinely perform background checks on would-be volunteers before giving them positions of responsibility. The chance that a church would give a registered sex offender free access to children is fairly slim, she said.

Permitting Howard, who volunteered at Heartbound in the past, to continue work with churches will allow others to "see that redemption is possible," added Shelton, her voice choking with tears. "Rehabilitation rarely takes place without redemption."
Ironically, Rep. Keen, whose law criminalizes religious volunteerism for sex offenders, is the former head of the Georgia Christian Coalition.

Collins, the Henry County woman, also took the witness stand to explain that, although she's ordained, her parole officer told her she can't even lead an adult prayer group in her home. Said Collins, who served three years in prison for sleeping with an underage boy: "I don't know what I can and cannot do."

That's the problem with the law, argued Southern Center attorney Gerry Weber: It's too vague.
"The law prevents 'volunteering,' but doesn't define what that is," Weber told the judge. "Law enforcement is making up the rules as it goes along."

The result is that enforcement is likely to vary greatly, depending on how each county's sheriff interprets the volunteering provision. In one Georgia county, a sex offender was prosecuted for playing the piano during services, Weber said.

It's no surprise that the revamped law lacks well-articulated guidelines for determining what behavior is illegal. Keen was never much interested in clarity or even enforceability. Back in 2006, he indicated that his goal was to make life so difficult, costly and perilous for sex offenders that they'd be forced to leave Georgia. Speaking at a Senate hearing, he said, "Candidly, senators, they will in many cases have to move to another state."

Certainly, Keen's law has succeeded in harrassing Wendy Whitaker, a Columbia County woman who was the subject of a CL cover story in July 2006 when she was ordered to leave her house because it was within 1,000 feet of a church-based child-care facility. That provision eventually was struck down.

Whitaker, lead plaintiff in the Southern Center constitutional challenge, was back in court last week. trying to keep her home. She'd moved back after the state Supreme Court struck down the law late last year, ruling the restrictions made it practically impossible for sex offenders to remain in their homes.

This time, Cooper ruled her lawyers failed to establish that the restrictions barring her from occupying her home rose to the level of banishment from the county. The judge appeared to be swayed by the argument that other sex offenders had managed to find some form of housing in Columbia County.

On the witness stand, Whitaker indicated that if she and her husband are forced to rent a place to live, in addition to paying their home mortgage, they'll likely face foreclosure. "It will be bad for us," she said.

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