Sex offenders in New Jersey are allowed to work with children as long as they're part of a church group, an appellate judge decided this week.

The decision upheld a 2015 ruling by Superior Court Judge Julie Marino, sitting in Somerville, who dismissed an indictment against a convicted sex offender who had been charged with violating Megan's Law by volunteering as youth leader, counselor, mentor and chaperone at the No Limits Youth Ministry of Eternal Life Christian Center.

The church, located in the Somerset section of Franklin, knew the defendant — identified in court papers as "S.B." — was a sex offender on Megan's List.

But S.B. was charged with violating the provisions of 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."

Marino dismissed the indictment, however, because the ministry was part of the church and not an organization specifically serving youth, defined by the law as "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."

The Somerset County Prosecutor's Office appealed, but appellate Judge Marie Lihotz said that to agree with the prosecutor would require the court "to redraft the plain, unambiguous language" of the law, which "lists various types of activities sought to be included within the definition, but makes no reference to churches or religious organizations."

The judge wrote that lawmakers may have excluded churches from the definition in order to avoid any suggestion that the law violated the religious liberties protected by the First Amendment.

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