Shelter discrimination blurs separation of church, state

By Sandy . . . It’s official. Winter is here. Temperatures are plummeting in states across the nation. Cold-weather emergency shelters are opening in response, most of them managed by Christian churches and organizations.

The post I wrote dealing with one of these elicited much interest and a high number of comments. This is largely due to their policy, by no means unique to them, of excluding those on sex offender registries.

Articles of other, similar situations have crossed my desk, and using the criteria of a Christian-based ministry and one that excludes those on the registry, these are the first four.

The Allied Churches Shelter in Burlington, North Carolina: “No matter what, sex offenders can’t be taken in because of children at the shelter.”

I placed a phone called and determined that North Carolina state law, though convoluted and confusing, forbids the presence of a registered sex offender in any place intended for the primary use of children even if children are not present and almost any public place at all if children are present. State law also makes it a crime for a minister (or anyone else) to knowingly allow a registrant to worship in the church if a child is on the premises. (See N.C.G.S. 14-208.18 and 14-208.11(A)a, respectively)

The House of Hope Shelter in Danville, Virginia: “Those who stay at House of Hope must not be registered sex offenders or wanted by law enforcement.”

I spoke with Steven Anderson, the director, who said that their shelter is next door to a school and state law forbids anyone on the registry from being there. He said there are women and children staying at the shelter, and it isn’t a good idea for them to be there. I tried to question him on this point and was told that it’s not going to change, no matter what.

Positive Avenues in Eau Claire, Wisconsin: “…registered sex offenders are not allowed at Positive Avenues because children often stay there.”

I left a telephone message and have not yet received a call-back.

The Ministry Center Warming Station in Conway, Arkansas:  “Peden [the center’s manager] emails the Conway Police Department to check for active warrants and to ensure none of the guests are registered sex offenders. ‘They haven’t had to come pick anybody up yet,’ Peden said.”

I also have not received a return call from my message left there.

I understand that in most if not all cases, the policies in place are officially the result of state laws governing those who are registered sex offenders. Nevertheless, I would pose these questions for those responsible for implementing the policies.

Where would you draw the line? What if the state said you cannot take anyone who has ever been convicted of any charge that resulted from the death of another person? Or anyone ever convicted of arson? Or of domestic violence? Or armed robbery? Or, since the presence of children seems to drive the policies, of child neglect? Or of selling or giving drugs to a child?

How do you reconcile your acceptance of the current policy with the answer you give yourself if you ask what Christ would do? Did he minister to all except those who engaged in sexual sin? Did he accept the law of the state in all cases, or did he try to show the leaders of the day that people were more important than man-made laws and that “Love your neighbor” means everyone, especially those most shunned by society?

Does not this serious violation of the separation of church and state bother you? Does the state have the right to dictate how you practice your faith and serve your fellowman?

And finally, if there were no such state law, would you open your shelters to all the homeless and needy, including those on a sex offender registry? Would you at least accept them with the same criteria and the same guidelines for safety that you use for everyone else?

Or would you find another reason to exclude those who, in emergency situations, when life and death are often at stake, need your help more than any other?


Sandy Rozek

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Sandy, a NARSOL board member, is communications director for NARSOL, editor-in-chief of the Digest, and a writer for the Digest and the NARSOL website. Additionally, she participates in updating and managing the website and assisting with a variety of organizational tasks.