SAN BERNARDINO - Responding to a demand that First Church of the Nazarene ban registered sex offenders or to stop receiving city money to host a youth facility there, the church's pastor contended the ultimatum is an unconstitutional violation of his religious freedom.

"I cannot think of anything more antithetical or repugnant to the fundamental values upon which our nation was founded - freedom of religion, freedom to worship God without interference from the government, freedom to practice Christianity without oppression," Pastor David Rhone wrote Tuesday in a letter to Mayor Pat Morris and the council.

The controversy follows Monday's revelation - through the leak of a confidential memo - that a man convicted of incest and lewd and lascivious conduct with a person younger than 14 performed work at the First Church of the Nazarene.

A police investigation determined that the man's presence at the church did not present a danger to children or that any new crimes were committed.

Nevertheless, the issue is sensitive not only because San Bernardino is in the middle of election season, but because the church hosts San Bernardino's flagship Operation Phoenix youth center. That center was managed by Mike Miller until Miller's arrest in July 2008 on suspicion of child molestation.

Miller has pleaded not guilty and is incarcerated while awaiting trial.

The church also hosts SOAR Charter Academy and Valley Christian Pre-school.

Rhone said Tuesday that he would rather sever the church's relationship with the city than let the government decide who can attend services, but he does not expect that to come to pass.

Instead, he expects the council to take back its demand and apologize.

"They've got to reconsider because what they've asked us to do is unlawful," Rhone said.

But City Attorney James F. Penman, whose investigators spent Tuesday passing out fliers reporting a sex offender had performed work at the church, says the council was within its rights to make demands of Rhone's church.

The city attorney said the council did not take over the church's decisions on which sinners can be preached to. Penman maintained the demand is meant to protect children participating in a city-run program and is a condition on partnering with the city.

Penman also thinks Rhone was irresponsible in allowing a known sex offender to perform work near children's facilities.

"There's an old saying that comes out of the Bible: `Who is without sin can cast the first stone.' I don't think Pastor Rhone is a position to cast stones."

For his part, Rhone sees Penman's actions as electoral politics. Penman is challenging incumbent mayor Morris for the city's top job.

Police Chief Keith Kilmer said Tuesday the mere presence of a registered sex offender in an area does not mandate public notification.

"The threshold is when someone poses a risk to public safety and that would be based on circumstances that are happening, (such as) if someone is hanging around a school and they have no business there," Kilmer said.

Despite the Police Department view that children were not threatened while on church property, all five council members who were present Monday night voted to present First Church of the Nazarene with the ultimatum.

City Councilwoman Wendy McCammack, who recommended the ultimatum to her colleagues, said Tuesday she's not afraid of any legal challenge.

"If it's unconstitutional, then I guess he can sue us," she said. "We have a Constitutional responsibility, local, state and federal, to keep city participants safe."

SOAR issued a statement Tuesday reporting that school officials did not know a sex offender had worked on church property until being notified by the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.

SOAR also reported the man had no contact with school children. Kristin Kraus, one of the school's co-founders and its assistant director, said that contrary to what was reported in the leaked memo, the man never picked up a girlfriend's child from the campus.

"I don't know what to say about that except that it never happened," she said.

Another point of dispute is whether Morris or anyone working for him should have notified the council. Penman and McCammack say the council needed to know of the situation, a view expressed by other council members at Monday's meeting. 

The leaked memo reports that mayoral aide Kent Paxton told police a sex offender was working on church property on Aug. 26.

Paxton said Tuesday that he called police the same day SOAR administration informed him that the sheriff's department inquired about the sex offender's presence.

As to the question of why the Mayor's Office did not notify the council, mayoral chief of staff Jim Morris said the mayor chose to let the investigation remain a confidential matter for police and Child Protective Services.

"It's up to them to decide where and when to share (information), Jim Morris said.