Youth Ministries & Sex Offenders: Part 2

by | Aug 14, 2017 | Blog, Criminal Law, Laws Protecting Children, Monmouth County, Ocean County

The New Jersey Supreme Court held that a plain-language reading of N.J.S.A. 2C:7-22 does not exempt a youth ministry associated with a church or other religious organization from the definition of “youth serving organization.” N.J.S.A. 2C:7-23(a) provides, in relevant part, that “it shall be unlawful for an excluded sex offender to hold a position or otherwise participate, in a paid or unpaid capacity, in a youth serving organization.” N.J.S.A. 2C:7-22 defines “youth serving organization” as “a sports team, league, athletic association or any other corporation, association or organization, excluding public and nonpublic schools, which provides recreational, educational, cultural, social, charitable or other activities or services to persons under 18 years of age.”

The text of N.J.S.A. 2C:7-22 is clear on its face: “Any other corporation, association, or organization” that provides activities or services to minors is a youth serving organization. Churches clearly fall within the blueprint of the statute and its “any other” language. The statute’s only exemption is “public and nonpublic schools.” N.J.S.A. 2C:7-22. The Legislature decidedly and explicitly exempted schools. It chose not to categorically exempt any other type of organization, including religious organizations.

The Legislature’s primary objective in enacting Megan’s Law was to create a registration system that provided law enforcement officials “with additional information critical to preventing and promptly resolving” incidents of child sexual abuse. N.J.S.A. 2C:7-1. Any ambiguity would have been interpreted in a manner favoring the protection of children to effectuate the statute’s legislative intent.  This portion of the holding conflicts with the long-standing principle of statutory interpretation that ambiguities in criminal statutes shall be construed against the prosecution.

The Court rejects defendant’s contention that the Appellate Division’s decision in J.B.W. compels the conclusion that the NLYM is not a youth serving organization. Whereas organizations affiliated with schools must be shown to be sufficiently separate from those schools to fall outside the statute’s school exclusion, that is not so with organizations affiliated with religious institutions. The Legislature specifically excluded “public and non-public schools” from the definition of youth serving organization but did not provide a similar exclusion for religious or any other type of organization.

Regarding the Appellate Division’s speculation concerning N.J.S.A. 2C:7-22 and the Free Exercise Clause of the United States Constitution, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that this constitutional question was neither raised by the parties nor necessary to the analysis. This matter is purely an issue of statutory interpretation and legislative intent. The judgment of the Appellate Division is reversed.