Judge allows sex offender ministry suit to continue

Published 5:20 pm Friday, April 8, 2016

A federal judge on Wednesday denied the state’s request to dismiss claims made by a Chilton County pastor who sued in 2014 challenging a state law that put a stop to his ministry for sex offenders.

U.S. District Judge Keith Watkins filed an order denying a motion by Chilton County District Attorney Randall Houston, named as a defendant in the case, asking the court to dismiss the claims by Ricky Martin, pastor of Triumph Church.

Martin provided a ministry for sex offenders who had been released from prison by allowing them to live on property he owned behind the church off County Road 374 near Enterprise Road south of Clanton.

According to Watkins’ order, about a dozen men normally lived on the property at one time, a total of about 60 during the whole time Martin led the ministry.

Martin and his wife also live adjacent to the property, and required the men to attend his church services, dress properly, keep the settlement tidy, and refrain from trespassing onto neighboring property, according to Watkins’ order.

“In addition to providing housing, Martin encouraged settlement residents to make healthy transitions back into free society,” the order states. “He stressed to these men the importance of living a Christian life, which he believed would prevent them from repeating their criminal offenses.”

In 2014, the Alabama Legislature passed House Bill 556 into law, which would keep registered sex offenders in Chilton County from living close to one another.

Rep. Kurt Wallace, R-Maplesville, sponsored the bill after learning about multiple sex offenders living in campers behind Triumph Church.

The bill prohibited two or more registered sex offenders from living on the same property unless the homes were at least 300 feet apart, forcing Martin to evict the men living on his property.

Martin filed a lawsuit claiming the law infringed on his right to freely practice his religion under the First Amendment, among other claims.

In Watkins’ order, he said that Martin had sufficiently made a claim that the law “creates a burden on his sincerely held religious beliefs,” and allowed the case to proceed.

The order also states that Watkins allowed Martin to proceed on claims that the law is a “bill of attainder” because it singled him out and that the law violates his due process rights.

“What Martin seeks is a hearing in which he is allowed to rebut the factual presumption that his settlement in fact causes damage to those around it,” according to the order.

An investigator with the Chilton County Sheriff’s Department in 2014 said he responded to a “few” calls at County Road 374 for minor offenses but nothing to do with sex offender crimes.

Wallace said in 2014 that having the property at County Road 374 invited individuals, many who have finished prison sentences for rape or other sex crimes, to live together.

Martin is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, Inc.

“We are pleased that the lawsuit can now go forward,” ALCU of Alabama Legal Director Randall Marshall said on Thursday. “The opinion is highly favorable to Pastor Martin’s claims that the challenged law violates his deeply held religious beliefs, and we hope that he will soon be able to carry on his ministry.”

The Alabama Attorney General’s Office is representing Houston, and declined to comment on Thursday.