Should freedom of religion protect offers of sex acts?

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.


  1. says

    I’m still unsure of why -- other than religious ‘moral’ reasoning -- prostitution is illegal.

    There are some valid critiques that can be thrown at the institution -- namely that it’s exploitive and unfair, but that’s a hard argument in a laissez-faire capitalist society like the US.

    RFRA needs to be trolled, hard, by the satanists.

  2. moarscienceplz says

    Here’s one question I would ask if I were the judge on this case, “Do you ask for donations before or after the sex act?”

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    There’s also an issue of age discrimination here, considering how many other churches offer sex acts for free to a (mostly) younger clientele.

  4. Rike says

    I haven’t noticed any closures of Catholic Churches. So what the authorities are saying is that the involuntary sex acts the priests are forcing on our children are protected under the freedom of religion, but any sex by consenting adults in any other churches are illegal. I wonder if that is so because (obviously) the children don’t have to pay for it -- it’s their parents who pay.

  5. Randall Lee says

    Marcus Ranum says, “… but that’s a hard argument in a laissez-faire capitalist society like the US.”

    Not sure how you reach the conclusion that the US is a laissez-faire capitalist society. We have minimum wages, price controls, regulations of every sort on almost every market.transaction. Cap this off with fiat debt currency expansion that destroys any semblance of an actual free market and We are much closer to total market control than we are to laissez-faire.

    Am I missing something?

  6. Chiroptera says

    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.

    Nit pick: although the Act may have originally intended to apply to the states, that part was ruled unconstitutional. The federal RFRA only applies to the federal government.

    Arizona may have its own state version of the RFRA, but it would be up to the state courts to decide whether that law protected temple prostitution (or whatever is going on here).

  7. StevoR says

    Simple answer -- yes. Why not if its all consensual and mutually fair and fun?

    Maybe someone should get the worship of Aphrodite going again too -- indeed it seems she’s still venerated among some polytheists :

    Plus we have Hinduism with its famed Kama Sutra and possibly /probably some Satanist or Wiccan groups and practices as well as other religious groups where sacred “prostitution” has occurred throughout history :

    And there’s even sort of a Biblical / Talmudic judgement inits favour when it comes to the story of Tamar :

    Although as often the case the legends there vary and seem at times ambiguous and contradictory.

  8. StevoR says

    @ 4. Pierce R. Butler : “There’s also an issue of age discrimination here, considering how many other churches offer sex acts for free to a (mostly) younger clientele.”

    Er ..WTF? What are you referring to here please?

  9. StevoR says

    BTW. Just want to stress the important caveat that the prostitutes in question MUST be there voluntarily, able to leave anytime and be well treated with full medical care available and respected as people. You know the way Mormon multiple women for example horrifically often aren’t.

  10. StevoR says

    PS. ^ That goes for pretty much all prostitution everywhere -- religious or not -- which should be legal, safe and have all parties rights and wishes respected.

  11. StevoR says

    Argh! I always see these stuff ups too late. Sigh. Editing capability here please! :

    Mormon multiple women wives was what I meant naturally. Sorry.

    Come to think of it there may be a case that religious prostitution is actually better and more empowering for the women involved than religious polgyamy.

    Exhibit A : Carolyn Jessop’s story as reviewed by Dana Hunter here :

    Exhibit B : The fate of King David’s concubine “wives” after their public rape by his son Absalom :

    through no fault of their own. See also the earlier chapter there ‘Absalom’s Public Display’ More Bible verses rarely heard in Church :

    “Ahithophel said to Absalom, ‘Have sex with your father’s concubines. All Israel will hear that you have made yourself repulsive to your father, and this will shore up support for you.’ -2 Samuel 16:21

    “So they set up a tent for Absalom on the roof, and he had sex with his father’s concubines.” -- 2 Samuel 16:21

    “The king took the ten concubines he had left to care for the palace and placed them in a prison.” -- 2 Samuel 20:3

    “They remained in prison until the day they died.” -2 Samuel 20:3

    Exhibit C : The thirteen wive’s of Mohammad which included several children he “married” and raped as an old man famously Ayesha (or Aisha /Aísha etc.. spellings vary.) :

    Plus another two child brides of about Ayesha’s age :

    Close to Aisha’s age, the two younger wives Hafsa and Zaynab were welcomed into the household. Sawda, who was much older, extended her motherly benevolence to the younger women. Aisha and Hafsa had a lasting relationship. As for Zaynab, however, she became ill and died eight months after her marriage

    Horribly suspicious timing there for Zaynab’s death I think. (Source : Wikipedia Muhammad%27s_wives.)

  12. StevoR says

    Child molesting priests. Okay, thanks. Now I understand and mostly agree although I’m not sure the churches explictly deliberately offer it as a “service” (& its still illegal) so much as you just have the pedophile priest cowards and scum take advantage of their power and then have the church authorities cover up the abuse for their own continued power and position.

    Eg. George Pell :

    & :

    Plus :

  13. abear says

    Some religious groups continue to place controls on people’s sexual behavior and others wish they still had the power.
    In some muslim countries the religious authorities have successfully worked to insure that arranged child marriages are still legal. Not really far from sexual slavery in my opinion.
    Call me a bigot, but I would like to see human rights overrule “religious freedom” in many cases.

  14. says

    Temple prostitution is an ancient and very well documented rite of religious devotion. It is even mentioned in the Bible! So why should it not be protected under all these religious freedom laws?

  15. lorn says

    Generally I’m okay with any sex that is limited to consenting adults. Some consideration might be given to, where practicable, harm reduction and limiting the interactions to actions which are not seriously damaging, to mind, body and psychological integrity but this second part is more a guideline than a hard limit.

    Within those bounds I figure people should be free to do as they please.

    The present laws, as I understand them are far less coherent. Pay a person for sex and it is a crime. Pay them in room, board and a somewhat longer commitment, termed marriage, and it is legal and celebrated.

    The other interesting aspect is that if you pay for sex, and film the sex, it isn’t prostitution, it is actors putting on a performance. I’m not sure where the break point is between bad prostitutes and honorable actors.

    Sex is strange. It is fun, enjoyable, and arguably both natural and healthy. But it is also surrounded by ritual, symbolic meaning, and layers of both pride and shame. As a cop friend said ‘Sex, money and drugs are the three strange attractors of humanity. They befuddle normally sober and smart people into doing dumb things. Most crimes involve one or more of the three’.

  16. Holms says

    ^ The division between prostitution and porn is especially ludicrous. Paying for sex is bad and illegal, paying for sex with a camera present is legal… wtf.

  17. birgerjohansson says

    So temple prostitution would be legal if a camera was present? I sppose most subjects would choose to bear masks.

  18. Jockaira says

    It’s obvious that the solution to the Phoenix Goddess Temple’s legal problems would be handily solved by making a visual recording of the rite on a memory stick and then selling the stick to the participant. The recording could also serve as a receipt for the love offering as a tax-deductible expense.

  19. says

    File the paperwork for a business rather than a temple, get a camera, all fixed.

    You’d have to pay taxes on it, though. That’s such a drag on earnings. Although I suppose you could offshore the profits somehow, like the big companies do.

  20. abear says

    birgerjohansson says

    March 4, 2016 at 7:01 am

    So temple prostitution would be legal if a camera was present? I sppose most subjects would choose to bear masks.

    I know I wood 😉

  21. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    RFRA is bullshit. It should never have been passed. Those particular native Americans should have been allowed to use peyote.

    Further, anyone, native American or not, religious or not, should be allowed to use whatever recreational drugs that they want, because of the ninth amendment and the general proposition that the government has no business in deciding what recreational drugs people do or do not do. RFRA was not necessary to accomplish this. Instead, all that was necessary was to repeal the bullshit prohibition laws.

    I would go further that much of the particular reasoning behind making certain recreational drugs illegal is Christian religion. We saw this most clearly during alcohol prohibition. We see it less today, but we still see it, for today’s prohibitions. So, I would also argue that under the first amendment’s establishment clause, drug prohibition is an unconstitutional imposition of religious values.

    I would similarly argue that a large part of the reasoning and motivation behind making prostitution illegal is religious in nature, and therefore laws against prohibition are an unconstitutional imposition of religious values according to the first amendment’s establishment clause.

    Finally, I would also probably invoke the ninth amendment in order to argue against laws that criminalize prostitution.

    PS: I believe in the applicability of the moral concept, and highly technical concept, known as wage slavery, and under that particular analysis, I am sympathetic to people who want to make prostitution illegal. In particular, I feel that rape is a worse crime than forced labor. I believe that forced labor can be part of justified punishment for criminals, but not rape. These moral examples lead me to believe that forced labor as part of wage slavery is acceptable, but sex work as part of wage slavery is far less acceptable. Thus, I actually still have some mixed feelings. I don’t know.

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