published Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

Alabama pastor sues over closure sex offenders camp

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — An Alabama pastor who let convicted sex offenders live in a camp behind his rural church filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday claiming a state law that forced him to shut down the operation violated his religious rights.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the complaint on behalf of Ricky Martin, pastor of Triumph Church in rural Chilton County south of Clanton.

The lawsuit claims Martin believes it is his Christian duty to help people, including sex offenders being released from prison. The suit cites scripture in saying Martin's act of letting the former inmates live in campers behind the church was a ministry.

The suit seeks to overturn a law passed this year to shut down the camp following complaints from area residents.

The law, passed by the Alabama Legislature but only affecting Chilton County, bars convicted sex offenders from living within 300 feet of each other on the same piece of property.

The law took effect July 1, forcing Martin to make the men leave the property where some had lived for more than three years.

"All I am trying to do is follow the teachings of Jesus Christ and care for those who are in need of assistance," Martin said in a statement released by the ACLU. "But now the government is prohibiting me from doing what the Lord is asking of me."

The suit names the sheriff and district attorney in Chilton County, where officials said the camp posed a threat to public safety.

Assistant District Attorney C.J. Robinson, who spearheaded work to pass the law, said he had not seen the complaint and declined comment. Sheriff Kevin Davis did not return a message seeking comment.

Martin, in a June interview with The Associated Press, said he opened the camp in 2010 after meeting inmates while working as a volunteer chaplain in state prisons. Many had nowhere to live after finishing their sentences because Alabama and other states restrict the areas where sex offenders are allowed to live, he said.

County officials began noticing an influx of inmates to the same address at the church after receiving notices under laws that mandate public notices about residences of convicted sex offenders.

A legislative sponsor and county prosecutor said the law was aimed at shutting down the camp.

"This law directly targets our client -- a minister -- because of his deeply held Christian beliefs. The government cannot single out and strong-arm people of faith in this way," ACLU attorney Heather Weaver said in a statement.

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