RALEIGH, N.C. — Convicted sex offender James Nichols said he was trying to better himself by going to church. But the police who arrested him explained: The church is off-limits because it has a day care center.
Now Nichols is challenging North Carolina's sex-offender laws in a case that pits the constitutional right to religious freedom against the state's goal of protecting the public from child molesters.
"I just started asking the question, 'Why? Why am I being treated this way after trying to better myself?' " said Nichols, 31, who was twice convicted of indecent liberties with a teen girl and again in 2003 for attempted second-degree rape. "The law gives you no room to better yourself."
At issue in Nichols' case and a similar one in Georgia are day care centers and youth programs at houses of worship where sex offenders can come into proximity with children. Sex offender advocates agree some convicts should not be allowed around children, but they contend barring all offenders denies them support needed to become productive citizens.
"Criminalizing the practice of religion for everyone on the registry will do more harm than good," said Sara Totonchi, policy director for the Southern Center for Human Rights.
Thirty-six states establish zones where sex offenders cannot live or visit. Some states provide exemptions for churches but many do not.
Katherine Parker, legal director for the ACLU of North Carolina, said she was not aware of religion-based challenges to sex-offender laws in any other states. The ACLU is helping in Nichols' case.
Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, said preventing offenders from attending religious services is another in a series of increasingly unforgiving laws adopted across the country. Some of the laws have pushed offenders out of homes and entire communities.
"The state cannot sentence someone to a life of being an agnostic or an atheist without violating the Constitution," Turley said.