By JAY REEVES
CLANTON - A new law used to shut down a church-affiliated camp for convicted sex offenders in rural Alabama violates a state constitutional amendment designed to protect religious liberty, the American Civil Liberties Union said Thursday.
Randall Marshall, legal director of the ACLU's Alabama office, said the law that went into effect this week is in apparent conflict with the Alabama Religious Freedom Amendment, passed in 1998 to make it tougher for government to infringe on religious rights.
Pastor Ricky Martin says he built a church in rural Chilton County and allowed convicted sex offenders to move to the property because the men had nowhere else to live. He said he was trying to follow biblical instructions to help the outcast.
The camp, which began accepting former inmates in 2010, closed when the new law took effect Tuesday.
Marshall said the amendment "raises serious questions" about the law, which was passed this year and affects Chilton County only. The amendment says laws can restrict religion narrowly only if there is a "compelling governmental interest."
Martin "has sincerely held religious beliefs that he's acting upon, and now you've got government prohibiting him from doing something that he considers part of his religion," Marshall said.
The sponsor of the bill, state Rep. Kurt Wallace, said the law is meant to protect the public from people convicted of rape, child molestation and other crimes.
Most of the more than 50 men who've lived in the camp through the years are from other counties and states, officials said.
"No religion is being disenfranchised," Wallace said. "He can practice any religion he wants, but he can't recruit sex offenders to our community. That's just crazy."
Martin hasn't sued to block the law, but he said he might. Some of the half-dozen men who were living in old campers behind his Triumph Church are now homeless, he said.
"I don't know what they're doing, just walking around trying to find a place to sleep," he said.
The law, which Wallace said was drafted with Martin's refuge in mind, prohibits two convicted sex offenders from living within 300 feet of each other on the same property in Chilton County unless they are married. It includes a provision to allow a state-approved counseling center or halfway house if one opened, Wallace said.
Martin, who serves as a volunteer prison chaplain, said the camp was needed because inmates serving time for sex-related offenses have a hard time finding suitable residences after release.
Like other states, Alabama restricts the areas where sex offenders are required to live, barring anyone convicted of certain crimes to reside within 2,000 feet of a school or day care. Laws are even stricter about where offenders can work or hang out, restricting them from being within 500 feet of parks, athletic fields or businesses where kids gather.
Inmates serving time for sex crimes must tell authorities where they plan to live following their release, and prisons or county jails must continue holding anyone who can't prove they have a legal place to live.