Americans United Tells Phoenix Officials To End Use Of Anti-Prostitution Program Anchored In Religion

Phoenix Endorses Religion And Coerces Suspects To Participate In Sectarian Ministry, Church-State Watchdog Says

Government officials in Phoenix are violating the law by compelling individuals suspected of prostitution-related offenses to participate in a program administered by religious groups, Americans United for Separation of Church and State says.

In a letter sent today to city officials, attorneys with Americans United assert that the program, Project ROSE, clearly violates the First Amendment. Project ROSE consists of a partnership between Phoenix police, Catholic Charities and a local Christian church.

Those arrested in the city’s twice-yearly sex-work stings are forcibly taken to Bethany Bible Church and escorted into the church in handcuffs. They are then given the option to avoid criminal prosecution by participating in a sectarian program.

“Phoenix is essentially telling criminal suspects that they can go to church or go to jail,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “The government has absolutely no right to force anyone into a position like that. These suspects shouldn’t be coerced into participating in a program that might not reflect their own beliefs.”

Under the program, suspects must authorize Catholic Charities to enroll them in its Prostitution Diversion Program in a section of the 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.

If the suspects don’t agree, a police report is submitted to the 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.

“The city is coercing individuals to participate in religious activities and programs, under pain of criminal prosecution,” reads AU’s letter. “The city is conveying its endorsement of religion generally and Christianity in particular. And the city is using taxpayer money and law-enforcement resources to aid religious institutions. Please immediately end these violations by suspending Project ROSE.”

The letter, signed by Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper and Madison Fellow Zachary A. Dietert, asks the city for a response within 30 days.

“This is an especially serious violation of religious freedom,” Lipper remarked. “The city of Phoenix is rounding up suspects for the purpose of sending them to a religious program, and then threatening to prosecute them if they decline to participate. The government may never force its citizens to choose between religion and prison.” 

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.