Wendy Whitaker faces eviction under court ruling

If the name in the headline sounds familiar, it’s because Whitaker was the subject of a cover story I wrote in July 2006 concerning the impact of Georgia’s harsh new sex-offender law. Whitaker, then 26, had been forced out of the house she owned with her husband in Harlem, Ga., on the outskirts of Augusta because the home was discovered to be within 1,000 feet of a church-based child-care facility.

For a while, the couple lived in a trailer park with relatives and she even moved briefly across the state line to South Carolina because the Georgia law bars sex offenders from residing near churches, schools, playgrounds, parks and other facilities, leaving her with few options for where to stay. The penalty for violating the law is 10-30 years behind bars.

Whitaker moved back into her house, however, after the Georgia Supreme Court struck down the law late last year, ruling the residency restrictions made it practically impossible for a sex offender to remain in his own home.

But the law was retooled this spring by the state Legislature and, in July, Columbia County deputies again told Whitaker she’d have to leave her house or face arrest.

Whitaker, who is the main plaintiff in an ongoing legal challenge of the law’s constitutionality, appeared again today before Federal District Court Judge Clarence Cooper. But this time, she left with even less hope.

Cooper ruled that lawyers for the Southern Center for Human Rights had failed to establish that the residency restrictions prohibiting Whitaker from occupying her home did not rise to the level of banishment from the county. Cooper didn’t explain his decision in depth, but it appeared he was swayed by an argument by lawyers for the Attorney General’s office that about 50 other sex offenders had managed to find some form of housing in Columbia County.

On the witness stand, Whitaker indicated that if she and her husband are forced to rent a place to live, in addition to paying their home mortgage, they’ll likely face foreclosure. “It will be bad for us,” she said.

Southern Center lawyers were also in court today to argue that the law imposes an unconstitutional ban on religious practices because many sex offenders have been barred from church activities. More on that later…