House OKs bill allowing churches to seek background checks

House OKs bill allowing churches to seek background checks

PROVIDENCE – The House of Representatives on Wednesday unanimously approved legislation sponsored by Rep. Jason Knight to protect Rhode Island youth by requiring all adults who seek employment or volunteer opportunities with routine contact with children to submit to a national criminal background check if asked.

The legislation is meant to help churches and other religious institutions protect children from those who have a history of abuse or other dangerous crimes. It was introduced as a result of the May 2015 arrest of the director of religious education at Temple Habonim in Barrington in a statewide child pornography sweep.

The Barrington representative said he is well aware of the difficulties churches face in vetting volunteers to prevent such problems.

“Volunteers are what make churches and religious organizations what they are. While almost all of them will be upstanding people, there will always be the possibility that some volunteer could have a background that should preclude them from working with children," he said. "Letting churches make a background check a requirement for volunteers and employees gives them a tool that will help them screen out those few and protect their members from undue risk. National criminal background checks are a readily available tool that will help churches keep children safe from those who might be volunteering for the wrong reasons."

The bill now goes to the Senate, which has already approved companion legislation.

Under the legislation, anyone 18 or older seeking to work or volunteer for any religious organization in a position in which they would have routine contact with children would be required, at the request of the religious organization or house of worship, to undergo a Bureau of Criminal Identification national criminal background check for the purpose of determining whether he or she has been convicted of any crime. The cost of the background check would be the applicant’s responsibility. The legislation would only enable, not require, churches and religious organizations to use BCI checks.

Churches would not receive specifics about an applicant’s record if he or she has one. They would only be told only that some disqualifying information has been found. However, the applicant would have the option of asking that the specifics be forwarded to the church or organization, which would then have the discretion to determine whether the applicant is eligible to work or volunteer there. Some institutions may wish to allow people with criminal histories to work or volunteer in some capacities if they consider the nature of their particular history to be irrelevant to the position, or if they determine the person has been sufficiently rehabilitated in the time since the offense occurred.

The legislation also protects churches and religious organizations from liability for refusing to accept an employee or volunteer based on information received as part of the criminal background checks.