Tennessee bill would permit sex offenders in churches

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TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL) – Tennessee state legislators have filed a bill that would allow sex offenders in places of worship with permission from religious leaders.

The bill, filed for introduction this week, would amend state law under “sexual and violent sexual offenders” to give religious leaders the option to allow sex offenders on campus for religious services or social support services.

Rep. Patsy Hazelwood (R-Signal Mountain) presented the bill in the House, while Sen. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) introduced it to the Senate.

Hazelwood told News Channel 11 that the bill was born of a situation in her district with a convicted sex offender on parole who wanted to attend Wednesday-night social support services at a church.

According to current Tennessee law, sexual offenders can’t be on any premises of a public or private school, licensed child care facility, public park, playground, recreation center or public athletic field while children under 18 are present.

“That was a problem with his parole officer because of the proximity of other, some daycare, some other kind of facilities that were within a certain distance limitations from the church,” she said.

The bill, which is four lines long, states that if the offender provides written notice to the religious leader about their offender status, the religious leader could provide written permission for the offender to be on the organization’s campus.

The bill doesn’t offer guidance on how to handle the offender’s presence on the premises. Hazelwood said one of her goals with the legislation is to give religious leaders the flexibility to manage the situation.

“We’re not in the business of telling a church that they have to allow an offender on their premises, or how they manage them if they do,” Hazelwood said, adding, “My hope is to accomplish this goal of just allowing, of making it possible for churches to intervene, to implement programs and to do this sort of outreach into the offender community.”

Sen. Jon Lundberg said he agreed to sponsor the bill in the Senate because he believes that faith-based rehabilitation could be helpful for some offenders.

“Where would you like some of these folks to be?” He said Wednesday. “Whether it’s out in the street or in a church, in religious services or potentially counseling.

“I think most of us would say ‘Hey I understand why that church organization would be helpful.'”

Hazelwood added that the bill falls in line with Gov. Bill Lee’s push for faith-based community initiatives, which his office created last year.

“Those of us who are Christian, if we really believe what we say we believe, we believe in redemption,” Hazelwood said. “And I personally think it’s better for these folks to be in church than maybe some other places they could be.”

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