If your youth sports organization is run through, or in connection with, a church or other religious organization, you may want to brush up on sex offender laws in your state. Why? A New Jersey judge recently ruled that sex offenders in New Jersey are allowed to work with children as long as they’re part of a church group.

This latest decision stems from an appeal that resulted from an indictment against a convicted sex offender who had been charged with violating Megan’s Law by volunteering as a youth leader, counselor, mentor and chaperone at the No Limits Youth Ministry of Eternal Life Christian Center.

Megan’s Law is a federal law (and often is used when describing state sex offender laws) that requires law enforcement to make public the information regarding registered sex offenders. It’s why many local and state police departments have a website where you can search the names and locales of registered sex offenders in your area.

The church knew the person in question was a sex offender on Megan’s list. Police charged the person with violating Megan’s Law, which prohibits “an excluded sex offender to hold a position, or otherwise participate, in a paid or unpaid capacity, in a youth serving organization.”

The judge dismissed the charge, though – and this is the important part!!! – because the youth ministry was part of a church and not a youth-serving organization like “a sports team, league, athletic association or any other corporation, association or organization… which provides recreational, educational, cultural, social, charitable or other activities or services to persons under 18 years of age.”

When discussing her decision, the judge said that to rule in favor of the prosecution would require re-writing some of the law and special attention would have to be paid to listing specific activities that might fall under churches or religious organizations. The judge said she suspects that churches and other types of ministries were purposely left out of the bill to avoid any suspected violations of religious freedoms protected by the First Amendment.

What does this all mean?

It’s another horrifying example that no matter what the law says, or sets out to do, sex offenders can still find a way to get near our children. This law and this decision in particular is especially murky because it does not help to define or separate what constitutes a youth sports team if that team is associated with a church. Does the team fall outside the scope of Megan’s Law because of its affiliation with a church? Or does the mere fact that it’s a youth sports team put it in protection of Megan’s Law? With so many unanswered questions about this, we urge any youth sports league or team in any state to use background checks as an integral hiring tool for your coaches, staff and volunteers.

There simply is no substitute for the type of protection a background check can provide to the children participating in your league. No child should ever become this victim of a sex offender, or even be allowed to be near a sex offender, because of a loophole in a law. Coaches, assistant coaches, team parents, refs, umpires, officials, facilities staff, bus drivers, and even volunteer coordinators all have direct interaction with kids throughout the season. While nearly everyone involved will help provide the safest, most secure environment for all children involved, there is always the chance a predator can and will use this as an opportunity to get closer to kids. It is our responsibility collectively to prevent that from happening, and a great starting point is the mandatory background check for all volunteers and staff.

As parents and volunteers, we understand how important it is for youth to participate in youth and amateur sports and recreational programs. These programs are an invaluable part of growing up; learning how to be part of a team, challenging yourself, developing strong character, and making new friends. Unfortunately, these types of programs, as we have all seen, attract predators seeking to surround themselves in a youth-centric environment. As uncomfortable as it is to think about, it is something we must not only think about, but work together to prevent. Providing children with a safe and secure environment is our responsibility.

Give us a call today at 877.319.5587 to learn more about the sex offender laws in your state, and how Protect Youth Sports can help keep the children in your care safe.