ATLANTA — A civil liberties group filed a federal class-action lawsuit Tuesday challenging a new Georgia law designed to crack down on people convicted of sexually abusing children, arguing that it is so strict that it would be impossible for offenders to live in most of the state’s urban and suburban areas.

The law, believed to be among the nation’s toughest, is set to go into effect July 1 and would impose stricter limits on where sex offenders may live, work or spend time — including 1,000-foot buffers around all school bus stops, churches, schools, child-care centers and other places where children congregate.

The lawsuit was filed by the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights on behalf of nine convicted sex offenders.

“Thousands of people on Georgia’s sex offender registry will be forced, by legislative fiat, to evacuate their homes, leave their jobs, cease attending their churches and abandon court-mandated treatment programs,” the lawsuit reads.

Under the law, those deemed sexually dangerous predators would have to wear electronic monitoring devices for the rest of their lives after being released from prison and would have to pay for the cost themselves. The new law also increases prison sentences for even first-time offenders and makes it a crime to harbor a sex offender.

Supporters of the law, which was signed by Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue in April, say it’s designed to prevent repeat sex crimes toward children.

“It’s a shame that when we take steps to protect children from absolutely the worst of our criminal element, that there are those who would want to defend them,” said state Rep. Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons Island, the plan’s sponsor. “We’re going to continue to put the safety of our children above the convenience of convicted sex offenders.”

While arguing for the changes before the Legislature earlier this year, Keen said the plan would make Georgia’s laws among the nation’s most restrictive by keeping sexual predators locked up longer and often driving them from the state after they are released.

The plan passed 53-1 in the state Senate, and 144-27 in the House.

The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit is Wendy Whitaker, a 26-year-old criminal justice student who has been married for six years. According to the complaint, Whitaker was convicted of sodomy when she was 17, after a consensual sex act with a 15-year-old boy on school property.

Plaintiffs argue that too many people with similar stories will be labeled child sex offenders under the new law. Keen, however, said it’s impossible to write a law tailored to cover every individual story.

“We knew there were going to be people affected by this law — that it was going to create some inconvenience,” he said. “But we thought that was a small price to pay for what the overall law is intended to do.”

The lawsuit says the Whitakers already have been forced to move under Georgia’s current law because they lived too close to a church with a daycare center and likely will have to move again under the new law.

“It will drive many people on the registry to sleep in parks, under bridges, or in their cars, or to set up tents or trailers in the woods,” the lawsuit reads.

Sarah Geraghty, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, called Georgia’s law “by far the most onerous law of any state.”

While laws preventing offenders from living or working near schools, daycare centers and other spots are relatively common across the nation, she said the bus stop provision goes too far.

“At this point, it’s unclear if there’s anywhere in the state for people on the registry to live,” she said.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Rome, Ga., claims the statute unconstitutionally denies sex offenders due process under the law, infringes on their religious freedom, amounts to an illegal taking of their property and imposes cruel and unusual punishment.

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On The Net

Southern Center for Human Rights, http://www.schr.org

House Bill 1059, http://www.legis.state.ga.us

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