Judge says sex offender law applies

ATLANTA --- A federal judge Thursday refused to halt enforcement of a provision in state law that prohibits sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a day-care center.

Lawyers from the Southern Center for Human Rights were seeking to stop the state from evicting Columbia County's Wendy Whitaker from her Harlem home and to prevent enforcement of another provision that keeps registered offenders from volunteering at their churches.

U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper denied Ms. Whitaker's motion and said he will issue a ruling another day on the question of church activities.

Asked on the stand how it would make her feel to have to move, she said, "It would be very bad."

Attorneys from the Southern Center argued that the law's provision is unconstitutional because it imposes a second punishment of banishment after Ms. Whitaker had already served out her sentence of five years' probation. She was essentially banished, they say, because there is almost nowhere else she could live.

Map expert Peter Wagner testified that of the 51,000 land parcels in Columbia County, fewer than 600 contained housing that is more than 1,000 feet from a school, day care, church, park or bus stop.

But, he acknowledged that about 50 former sex offenders have found residences there.

Judge Cooper merely said he was unconvinced.

However, he didn't rule on arguments he heard Thursday on two other motions by the Southern Center. One is the constitutionality of a 2008 addition to the sex-offender law prohibiting volunteering at church, and the other is about granting class-action status that would treat all 15,000 people on the state's sex-offender registry as being harmed by the law.

Three former sex offenders testified that they wanted to continue helping out around their churches but, since the change took effect in July, their parole officers told them not to sing in the adult choir, deliver their testimony or even set-up chairs in church.

The state argued that the presence of youngsters in churches necessitates the volunteering prohibition since children are inclined to give more authority to an adult serving in any role of responsibility.

These people can still worship in church, said Joseph Drolet of the Georgia Attorney General's Office.

"What the plaintiffs have done is take core religious values ... and extend it to any activity in a church," he said.

Reach Walter Jones at (404) 589-8424.

BACKGROUND: Wendy Whitaker is on the sex-offender registry for engaging in consensual sex as a 17-year-old high school sophomore with another sophomore, then 15, more than a decade ago. She was also convicted of misdemeanor shoplifting about nine years ago.

TODAY: Now 29, Ms. Whitaker has 72 hours from Monday to move from her husband's home on Church Street in Harlem.