The city of Phoenix is running a blatantly unconstitutional program in its police department, arresting sex workers and giving them a simple choice: Go to church or go to jail. The program is a joint operation between the city, the Catholic church and a local protestant church. Americans United for Separation of Church and State reports:
The “this” Gallagher referred to is Project ROSE, a program he started in 2011 along with Arizona State University Prof. Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, whose expertise is in social work. The goal is simple and, many would say, admirable: reduce the number of women on the streets by helping them turn their lives around instead of just throwing them in jail. The problem is the method, which consists of a partnership between Phoenix police, Catholic Charities and a local Christian church.
The women arrested in Phoenix’s twice-yearly sex-work stings are forcibly taken to Bethany Bible Church and escorted inside in handcuffs. They are then given the option to avoid criminal prosecution by participating in a sectarian program. Critics, including Americans United, have said that Project ROSE is a clear violation of the First Amendment…
The Phoenix program is among the most blatant for its religious ties. During a sting in October 2013, Phoenix police apprehended 54 women on suspicion of prostitution. Those women were as young as 18 and as old as 58, Al Jazeera reported. They were immediately coerced into joining Project ROSE, which gives suspects a choice: go to church or go to jail.
Under the program’s rules, women picked up by police must authorize Catholic Charities to enroll them in its Prostitution Diversion Program (PDP) located in a section of Bethany Bible Church marked by a sign with a Latin cross, the Project ROSE logo and the words “Prosecutor’s Office.” There, a city prosecutor informs them that if they wish to keep their arrest off the books, they must complete Catholic Charities’ program.
On its website, Catholic Charities describes the PDP as “36 hours of self-exploration and education to develop self-esteem and give hope. Participants also receive rehabilitation services including support, education, and treatment to help them escape prostitution. Job placement assistance is also provided. Those who complete the program have their charges dismissed.”
If the suspects don’t agree to enter that sectarian program, a police report is submitted to the Phoenix Prosecutor’s Office, and they are charged with prostitution. A conviction carries a mandatory sentence of 15 days to six months’ imprisonment, in addition to a fine of up to $2,500.
The ultimate solution to this is to legalize sex work entirely and regulate it to protect those who engage in it. But this program is blatantly unconstitutional and needs to stop. I hope they can find one of the people arrested in these stings to agree to challenge it in court.