Sunday, February 21, 2016

Phoenix Goddess Temple Trial Underway

Back in 2011, members of the Goddess Temple in Phoenix, Arizona, were arrested and charged with prostitution. The Temple is a religious organization dedicated to sacred sexuality that practices a New Age synthesis of Eastern and Western practices. According to police, the justification was that since the temple engaged in sacred sexual practices and would accept offerings like any religious organization, the church was no different than a brothel and therefore its members were breaking the law.

The Goddess Temple had been operating for years with no complaints. I remember first seeing the organization on the Internet in the late 1990's, more than a decade before any arrests were made. But I suppose it was only a matter of time before somebody made a stink about it. Tracy Elise, the head of the organization, is finally going to trial after five years. She is facing up to 70 years in prison for various charges related to the allegation that she was really running a brothel rather than a legitimate spiritual or religious group. The original charges included various quotes to that effect from law enforcement.

Those quotes included some from county attorney Bill Montgomery, who said at a press conference, “This was no more a church than Cuba was Fantasy Island.” It also included a statement from police spokesman Sergeant Steve Martos, who framed the temple operations as only semantically different than a brothel: “Instead of johns, they were called seekers. Instead of sexual intercourse, it was called sacred union. The women were not called prostitutes, they were called goddesses.” Over 30 people were arrested in the raids.

What Elise has come to believe in the years since is that the case against her temple was driven by a distinctly Roman Catholic bias, as personified by county attorney Montgomery. He wasn’t appointed to that position until November 2010. Prior to that, while there had been concerns raised by neighbors, city officials seemed satisfied that the temple practices were protected by the first amendment to the Constitution. While some of the prosecution witnesses, including Montgomery, were asked if they were Catholic, Elise said that the line of questioning was halted by the judge.

As to what exactly was going on in there, Elise does not shy away from the concept of sacred sexuality and its healing powers. “If someone is sincere in their beliefs, has a doctrine, and follows it consistently, then the state has the burden of proof,” she explained. That doctrine wove together goddess-focused Pagan rituals, tantric sexual practices, and Native American ceremonies overseen by the temple’s sponsoring organization, the Okleveuha Native American Church.

“I can’t do a seven-chakra rebalancing and ignore the red ray,” Elise said, using one of the terms she has for the root chakra, where the genitals are located. “If a man is starved for affection for whatever reason,” a woman in the temple’s sacred precincts might “receive him and unburden him” in a ritual as sacred as that conducted within a confessional booth, she said, and it’s no one’s business exactly what occurs between them, emotionally or physically. “He may love his wife completely, but they are not sexual. We’re not interested in stealing him away from her.”

As I mentioned on Friday, the new Watchers of the Dawn also covered this story, and one of the commenters there pointed out that apparently the Native American church that the temple is affiliated with has faced questions over whether or not it is a legitimate Native American church or some sort of appropriative New Age group. This perhaps makes the story a little less clear-cut, but to my way of thinking it should not affect the outcome of the trial. The trial is about religious freedom, not the historical and/or Native legitimacy of the group.

The courts have already made it clear that "sincerity of religious belief" cannot be judged within a legal framework, and as far as I can tell it seems like if what Elise really wanted to do was run a brothel, she went to far more trouble than she ever needed to in setting up the Temple. Everything I've seen suggests that she is completely sincere with respect to her neo-tantra-inspired beliefs. Those beliefs are certainly open to criticism, but whether they are appropriative or not has nothing to do with whether or not she is a criminal.

To me this hinges on a simple question. Churches do plenty of things that might otherwise be illegal outside a religious framework. Many of them serve alcohol to minors during communion, for example, which would otherwise be considered a serious crime. But nobody is busting down their doors over it. It seems to me that the Temple's activities should likewise be protected. At least one Native church is legally allowed to use the drug peyote in its rituals, even though the drug is otherwise a Schedule I controlled substance, and that case went all the way to the Supreme Court. And so forth.

Religious freedom for one religion, in my opinion, has to mean religious freedom for all religions, or it doesn't mean anything at all. Obviously this does not mean that a church can engage in behavior that harms others under the guise of religious freedom, but as I see it victimless activities that are only illegal on moral grounds anyway should be allowed. An organization as out-in-the-open as the Temple would be an incredibly poor front for any sort of trafficking, and there's no evidence that anyone involved with the Temple was coerced.

I'm hoping that Elise will see these charges dropped on First Amendment grounds, but given the prudishness of way too many people it won't surprise me if she winds up serving time in prison. That would be a shame, because it would send a signal that the government is only giving lip service to religious freedom. It would be saying that some religions, namely the ones that aren't "too weird" in the eyes of regular people, are more equal than others.

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