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Bill would limit sex offenders’ access to churches on school property

January 30, 2018

Serious sex offenders who attend church on a property that also houses an educational institution would be restricted in the amount of time they can spend at that church through a bill that passed an Indiana Senate committee Tuesday.

Senate Bill 295 would allow serious sex offenders, as defined in Indiana Code section 35-42-4-14, to enter a religious institution located on school property “for the sole purpose of attending worship services or receiving religious instruction,” and only for the duration of the worship service, and 30 minutes before and after the service. Sen. Frank Mrvan, D-Hammond, told the Senate Corrections and Criminal Law Committee on Tuesday his bill was born of the Indiana Court of Appeals’ decision in John Doe 1, et al., v. The Boone County Prosecutor, in his official capacity, et al., 06A01-1612-PL-2741.

The Boone County case began when the General Assembly passed I.C. 35-42-4-14 –  known as the “unlawful entry by a serious sex offender” statute – making it illegal for a serious sex offender to knowingly or intentionally enter a school property. The Boone County Prosecutor informed local sex offenders that the statute prohibited them from attending church where children’s classes or services were offered, but three of those offenders alleged that would be a blanket prohibition on their ability to attend any church.

During oral arguments before the Court of Appeals in September 2017, ACLU of Indiana legal director Ken Falk presented two arguments to support the offenders’ position. First, he alleged churches do not meet the definition of school property, and even if they did, the statute would violate offenders’ rights under Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The state, however, maintained that churches met the statutory definition of operating to “the benefit of children,” thus qualifying religious institutions as schools.

The Indiana Court of Appeals sided with the offenders, with Judge Margret Robb noting the statute specifically referred to Head Start programs, preschools or developmental child care programs as examples of “school property.”

“A common element among these listed examples, as well as the statute as a whole, is the focus on places or entities traditionally thought of and known as ‘school,’” Robb wrote in an October opinion. “Churches and religious institutions are not school, nor do they become so by use of the popular and common name of ‘Sunday school.’”

The appellate court did not reach the RFRA argument but noted that if churches met the definition of school, the statute would not “further the interest it seeks to redress as applied to these three men.”

Mrvan said his bill is meant to narrow that ruling by striking a better balance between the need to protect children and sex offenders’ rights to attend church. Dave Powell, executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, agreed, saying the appellate court ruling had created confusion over how to best protect children who attended educational services on church property.

“This fixes a big problem,” Powell said.

Mike Brown, legislative affairs director for the Indiana Department of Education, offered two suggestions for SB 295. First, he recommended tailoring the language so that sex offenders cannot attend religious institutions within 30 minutes of any co or extracurricular educational activities, child care or other services a school offers. He also called for language that would indemnify school corporations from any damages or liability that could arise if sex offenders are allowed on the property.

Mrvan, however, questioned why the DOE was “interfering with a church” and called on the senators to put the safety of Hoosier children above other concerns. The committee followed that advice and passed SB 295 7-2, with Republican Sens. Aaron Freeman and Eric Koch voting against the bill.  

Falk and a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment on SB 295.

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