In the US someone can set up a bogus church and proceed to fleece people by getting them to donate money, even what they cannot afford. Those donations are tax deductible and the pastors get to live the high life with fancy houses, private jets and the like at our expense. The government will not touch them because as soon as they do, people will scream ‘religious persecution’.
But it seems as soon as sex is involved, then the authorities start prosecuting, as one case in Arizona illustrates where Tracy Elise, the head of a temple, was found guilty of prostitution.
The Phoenix Goddess Temple began operating out of a residence in Scottsdale in 2008 before moving to a new location after neighbors complained and police made inquiries into church activities.
In 2010, the temple settled in Phoenix, touting itself as a “neo-Tantra Temple” offering spiritual and touch-based healing services to “seekers” in exchange for donations. Some of these healing services included sexual gratification.
Ben Wade, son of Elise, seemed to believe that the sexual acts in the Temple were OK.
“We have the freedom of religion,” Wade said. “The statute said, ‘No, you cannot touch genitals.’ To us, our religion and our belief, the body is the temple. The body is sacred. That may include the genitals. In fact, I’m pretty sure it does.”
The authorities argue that prostitution is illegal and that this, and not religion, is what the case is about.
[Edward Leiter, deputy county attorney] argued that even if the sexual acts performed at the temple were spiritual in nature, the way money was exchanged in those sessions made it a prostitution enterprise. Elise previously testified that all money exchanged came in the form of donations.
Suggested donations — set by temple leadership including Elise — ranged from around $200 to more than $600.
The legislation known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was passed following the case in which American Indians were prosecuted for smoking peyote as part of their religious rites, which was illegal. The act argued that the state should not intervene in religious activities unless it had a compelling reason to do so, and RFRA has been the main tool used by religious people to justify all manner of religious intrusions into the public sphere.
The leaders of many bogus churches promise their followers that they will reap rich financial rewards if they send money to the pastors. Of course, only the pastors get rich and the flock gets absolutely nothing. In this case, the flock received some tangible benefits in the form of sex acts for their money so it is not clear why the offense here is worse.