The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office is targeting some sex offenders for arrest at the City Union Mission because it sits near a park, according to a federal lawsuit alleging that the practice violates the charity’s constitutionally protected rights of religious freedom.
The suit centers on how the sheriff’s office interprets a Missouri law that prohibits certain offenders from “loitering” within 500 feet of a public park that contains a pool or playground equipment.
The mission operates several facilities in the 1100 block of East 10th Street near Margaret Kemp Park, and the sheriff’s office has interpreted that law to cover those offenders at the mission, according to the suit filed in U.S. District Court in Kansas City.
The suit contends that the Missouri law does not adequately define the term “loiter” and is unconstitutionally vague.
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“We want to get that cleared up,” said Jonathan Whitehead, attorney for the mission. “Seeking shelter, food or prayer is not loitering.”
The sheriff’s office is now saying that the law “applies to kitchens and shelters of the mission, even though those buildings are being used for religious ministry and not for ‘loitering,’ ” according to the suit.
“As a result, the sheriff’s office has threatened to arrest certain mission employees or guests on mission property,” according to the suit.
That impinges on the constitutional rights of the mission, its employees and guests to exercise their religious faith, the suit claims.
Jackson County Sheriff Mike Sharp said his office is simply following the law.
“I am statutorily obligated to enforce the laws of Missouri,” Sharp said. “That includes sex offender laws, and I will continue to do so until I’m told otherwise by the courts.”
The Missouri law was enacted in 2009 and amended in 2014.
It affects people who have been convicted of seven crimes: incest; first-degree child endangerment; use of a child in a sexual performance; promoting a sexual performance by a child; sexual exploitation of a minor; promoting child pornography; and furnishing pornographic material to minors.
But it wasn’t until May 2016 when the sheriff’s office notified the mission that it was interpreting the law to include those offenders being present on any of the mission’s property because of its proximity to Kemp Park.
“Based on the May 2016 position, no affected person could seek shelter, food, worship, prayer or services on mission land,” according to the suit.
And the mission noted that it could be prosecuted for aiding and abetting or conspiracy if it allowed affected persons to use its facilities.
In September, the sheriff’s office once again amended its position to allow affected persons to be in or work in some of the mission’s buildings, but not all of them.
The suit says that because of the policy, the mission said it has had to: allow sheriff’s deputies to conduct “sweeps” of its facilities; turn away affected people who need and want its ministry services; and withdraw religious and other services or employment for people who desperately need it.
Whitehead, the mission’s attorney, said that although no one has yet been arrested, some people have been told that they can’t work there or seek shelter.