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Legislative devilment

7-5-2008 Georgia:

Plain legislative vigilantism!

IF EVER a slam-dunk request for an injunction was filed in a federal court it’s the one that has landed in U.S. District Court in Rome challenging the state’s new ban on exercising one’s religion.

The state’s overzealous legislators, who continue to use sledgehammers to try to kill fleas, apparently managed to slip in yet another new restriction on convicted sex offenders in their continual rewriting of a law that has already been slapped down repeatedly by the courts and contains elements (such as making it illegal to live with 1,000 feet of the state’s 150,000 school bus stops) that are obviously unenforceable — and on which many sheriffs and schools boards have refused to act as the “hit man.”

The latest addition: Not only can those who have served their time and paid their debt to society, yet will remain on the state’s official “outlaw” list for the rest of their lives, not be allowed to “work” for a church, as previously in the measure, now they also can’t “volunteer” for one.

Hence, one supposes, helping in a food kitchen, going on a mission trip, taking part in a Habitat for Humanity effort — even singing in a church choir — could result in being sent back to prison for from 10 to 30 years.

EVEN GRANTING that the legislative intent of protecting children against predatory repeat molesters is well meant, this won’t stand, can’t stand and reinforces the suspicion that the state’s lawmakers may have heard of the U.S. Constitution but apparently have never read it.

And, as previously pointed out repeatedly, if the state sees such great, continuing, incurable danger from child molesters why is it releasing them from prison in the first place instead of placing them (and paying for) rehabilitative services in a restricted setting?

The Georgia registry pegs some 40 percent of the released offenders as being “predatory” (far from all regarding children). And, of child molesters, national statistics show the majority of the perpetrators are family members or close friends. The legislators seem to have missed a bet by not banning those on the registry from attending any family events — or having a family, for that matter.

In this instance, however, the First Amendment very, very clearly and in simple language says government “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

“Exercise” means “practice” and not simply attending a worship service. Can one have a meaningful religious belief without the ability to follow its tenets?

THIS CHALLENGE by the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights points out that the restriction denies Georgia’s sex offenders the “rehabilitative influence” of religious activity. “Certain people on the sex-offender registry should not work with children in a church setting or elsewhere,” agrees Sarah Geraghty, a center lawyer. “But criminalizing the practice of religion for all 15,700 people on the registry will do more harm than good.”

And the law makes no exceptions; even those on the registry for having consensual sex as teens are included. So are those on the registry who since have become ordained ministers (and there are such).

And here’s another and one assumes unintended horror of this latest devilment by the General Assembly: Pastors and other spiritual leaders could be charged as an accessory to a crime for encouraging those on the registry to participate in the life of the church.

If there’s any positive aspect to this it is that interpretation of the “exercise clause” is actually somewhat murky in case law. If appeals should wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court if might give the justices an overdue opportunity to better define what freedom the churches have — or don’t have — to practice what they preach.

THE GOVERNING rule of thumb is that church activities cannot be illegal unless the identical action is illegal for all Americans — for example, one can’t use narcotics as part of a religious service if no citizen is permitted to use drugs.

While the state does have an interest in protecting children against predators (that it set free), most on the registry don’t offend again ... and don’t target children either. It’s going to be very difficult to Georgia to maintain that singing in a church choir is so fraught with peril that no American can be allowed to sing the Lord’s praises. ..News Source.. by Rome News-Tribune

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