BOONE COUNTY, Ind. -- People who are considered "serious sex offenders" by Indiana law are still allowed to go to church, even if their church has Sunday school services where children are present, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.
The ruling stems from a case that began in 2015 after the Boone County sheriff sent letters to all registered sex offenders in the county, informing them of a new law that prohibits "serious sex offenders" from entering school property.
In Indiana law, "school property" is defined as “federal, state, local, or nonprofit program or service operated to serve, assist, or otherwise benefit children who are at least three (3) years of age and not yet enrolled in kindergarten.”
The Boone County Sheriff's Office and the prosecutor's office interpreted that law to include churches, if the church has Sunday school or child care for children at least 3 years old, which would mean the "serious sex offenders" couldn't attend those churches.
Three Boone County residents, all considered "serious sex offenders" by Indiana, filed a complaint against the state, saying the statute violates Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act. One of them said there were no churches in the county he could attend, as they all had Sunday school services.
Under Indiana law, sex offenders who are found to be a sexually violent predator or convicted of certain sexual criminal offenses are labeled "serious sex offenders." Under the the men's sex offender registrations, none of them were restricted from being near children older than 3
In Tuesday's ruling, the Indiana Court of Appeals decided churches are not school property, even if Sunday school or child care services are offered there. The court ruled that if the Indiana legislature wanted to include church's Sunday school services as "school property," it could've done that when writing the law.
Judge Margret G. Robb wrote:
Churches and religious instruction are not schools, nor do they become so by use of the popular and common name of “Sunday school.” Moreover, we note what the statute “does not say.” ... The statute does not say churches, Sunday school, or anything related to religious instruction for children is “school property.” Certainly, if our legislature intended for churches offering Sunday school or other religious instruction to children to qualify as “school property,” thereby prohibiting “serious sex offenders” from entering that property, it could have clearly sought to do so.
As part of the ruling, the appeals court threw out RFRA as a reason for their decision, instead focusing on the definition of school property.
The ACLU of Indiana represented the three Boone County residents in the case. The ruling reversed a decision made by a lower court in 2016.
The law would apply differently to sex offenders who are not allowed to be near children in any public space.