PHOENIX, Ariz. –When the Phoenix Goddess Temple was raided for prostitution in September 2011, the ensuing perp walk made headlines. The idea of a religion embracing sacred sexuality in this heavily Catholic area was too much to resist. After more than four years, the case against the temple’s leader, Tracy Elise, has finally reached trial. She agreed to speak with The Wild Hunt about the case as it has progressed thus far. An unexpected hiatus — due to a medical problem faced by the judge — gave her the opportunity.“I’m facing 70 years in prison,” Elise said during a wide-ranging phone interview, “but I think I will be found innocent.” That’s because she is confident that the jurors recognize that the Phoenix Goddess Temple was never the brothel that prosecutors claimed. Instead, it is simply a place where a religion is practiced, albeit one that is quite different from what is generally considered sacred in this heavily Catholic city.
Jason Pitzl-Waters covered the case when it first broke in 2011, making international newswires:
It is now revealed that charges include prostitution, pandering, and conspiracy. Most reports I’ve read seem pretty confident that this was nothing but a brothel with a veneer of spirituality painted on as a legal smokescreen. I’ve never seen so many scare quotes being used in a mainstream newswire report before.
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.”
Among the core tenets in the temple, Elise said, are self-sovereignty and “unconditional loving witness.”
Some defendants interviewed after being arrested maintained that they were not engaged in prostitution, and that intercourse did not even occur. Elise did not say anything to contradict those assertions. Instead, she pointed to the various traditions of sacred sexuality that temple doctrine stems from, and maintains that the raids and ensuing charges should be characterized as a “hate crime” for its impact on the religious and healing work which was being done at the temple.
During the trial, Elise has brought in expert witnesses to show that the temple was in fact a place of legitimate religious practice, not the thinly-veiled prostitution ring it was described as in media accounts at the time. It is a position that was first brought up publicly in an article published in the Phoenix New Times; Elise referred to that report as an “attack.” She maintains that none of the people arrested — who were mostly, but not exclusively, women — were coerced in any way, which she believes is a key difference between temple practices and prostitution.
The trial is expected to conclude this week. Despite the heavy interest in 2011, news coverage this time around is decidedly lacking, fueling Elise’s belief that there is an orchestrated media blackout of the trial.