On the face of it, this sounds like a blatant violation of the First Amendment. In Arizona, prostitutes arrested by police in big sting operations are now given the choice of going to jail or participating in a “rehabilitation program” run by Catholic Charities, which includes 36 hours of classroom instruction in a church. Although I haven’t yet been able to verify how much religion is actually given to these people, the circumstances sound suspicious. According to American United for Separation of Church and State:
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.
Unfortunately, it is one of a growing number of programs nationwide in which church and state have teamed up in an attempt to lower crime rates, as law enforcement officials hope that a dose of old-time religion can convince criminals to change their ways. But the reality, critics say, is that such programs don’t just raise constitutional concerns – there is also little evidence to suggest that they work.
Nevertheless, the trend is expanding, with police chaplains becoming more common and correctional officials increasingly open to evangelical Christian programs to keep convicts from committing new crimes after release.
What instruction is given to these sex workers? Again, details are sketchy but sound goddy; here are some from VICE News:
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.”
Monica [an arrested prostitute] described the class as having the religious overtones of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. In keeping with the program’s Catholicism, no condoms were provided. Neither was child care.
“I wasn’t ashamed about being a sex worker. I kept bringing this up during the diversion program,” Monica told me. “Girls would ask me why I didn’t feel this way. Well, ’cause I don’t. I have the right to my own body.”
Catholic Charities requested that Monica leave early, fearing her influence on others.
Monica’s trial is in March. The prisons she may be sentenced to are brutal. Arizona is the home of the notorious Tent City, an outdoor complex of bunks and razor wire, where prisoners’ shoes melt from the relentless heat.
This is excessive religious entanglement on two grounds. First the state becomes entangled with the Catholic Church. I find it hard to believe that no proselytizing goes on in those church classrooms. Why would Catholic Charities do it without some religious aim, furtive or not? Second, the city is using taxpayer money to funnel the accused into Church-related programs.
To compound the problem, programs like these, according to Americans United, don’t really work, with a high dropout and recidivism rate. Moreover, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the goal of the program, to “rescue” sex workers, doesn’t always jibe with how the sex workers feel about themselves.
Not only is there an apparent problem with organizing busts to send people to a church-backed charity program, but a local group, the Sex Workers Outreach Project of Phoenix, has protested the program because they don’t want to be “rescued” from anything.
Sex workers are out there to make money, not as “victims,” according to the Sex Workers Outreach Project.
Well, be that as it may, I don’t think the law should be in partnership with the church. This isn’t the only case of such unholy matrimony; there’s another one in (of course) Alabama that’s even more blatantly unconstitutional:
A police program in Montgomery, Ala., is also raising some serious constitutional concerns as pastors there have been used to fight crime. TheAtlantic reported in October that city police, facing what had been described as the worst local crime wave in decades, devised a sectarian solution to their problem: “Operation Good Shepherd” (OGS).
OGS ran during the summer of 2013 and involved training local Christian ministers so they were prepared to work crime scenes right alongside police officers. Ministers were sent to active crime scenes and instructed to pray with both victims and perpetrators. Supporters of the operation said this would serve to reinforce morality in a turbulent town.
Notably, no non-Christian clergy were part of this project, and police officials didn’t see a problem with that.
“What we want to do is combine the religious community and the Montgomery Police Department, and we want to unite those as one,” David Hicks, a police corporal, told local Christian radio.
Although the ministers who participated in OGS were volunteers, the Atlantic reported that the Montgomery police force is paid to train them and provide them with access to crime scenes, making this a publicly funded project. Montgomery’s official police chaplain does not seem to think that was an issue, either.
It is an issue; an even more obvious violation of the constitution given that actual religious practice (prayer) is involved, and prayer from only one denomination. That, at least, is clearly illegal.
Both Americans United and the ACLU are looking into the Phoenix case. I doubt that their letters of warning or press releases will change anything, and it may have to go to court. But I’m not sure how cut-and-dried this will look if there is no secular alternative. People can argue that there’s no religious proselytizing, and it’s simply a nonreligious outreach by a religious organization. But that’s not the way the ACLU and Americans United see it:
“This is an especially serious violation of religious freedom,” Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper said in a press statement on Project ROSE. “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.”
I agree, although readers may not.