From Prison, Phoenix Goddess Temple Founder Vows to Keep Fighting for Religious Freedom
Allen Douglas/New Times Illustration
In commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the massive police raid on the Phoenix Goddess Temple, founder Tracy Elise has delivered a special recorded message to her supporters from Perryville Women's Prison, where she's serving a 4.5-year sentence for an array of prostitution-related charges.
"It may appear to everyone that we have lost our case, but that's not true," she begins, citing the symbolic win of getting her story, and the temple's, into the official court record.
"We were denied any kind of religious defense, and from the very beginning we were subjected to extreme conservative Christian political biases. We really were put into a corner," she goes on, likening the way state and local authorities treated the men and women who worked in the temple (called practitioners) to the women accused of being witches in Salem, Massachusetts, during the 1600s.
"Many tricks, many prosecutorial tricks, were used against us," she says. "And we were facing over 2,000 years of prejudice against female clergy, against the idea that the sexuality of the human body is an altar, a temple for the spirit."
As she so often has in the five years since her arrest, Elise notes that Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery is a devout Catholic, and that his religion set the tenor for what she sees as biases leveled against her and her temple.
"I underestimated the extreme religious bias of County Attorney Bill Montgomery," she says — how his attorneys would "filter the law through their personal beliefs."
Tracy Elise, minutes after she delivered her closing statement at the trial.
According to Elise, the Phoenix Goddess Temple was a church, and the sacred sexuality she and others in the temple practiced was their religion. But the prosecution did not see it that way, and state law prevented her from using a religious defense.
Elise's trouble with the law stems from a 2011 New Times cover story that labeled the temple "a New Age brothel" and inspired the Phoenix Police Department to launch a six-month undercover investigation, culminating in a dramatic and international-headline-grabbing raid.
While Elise was only one of dozens booked on prostitution-related charges, she was the only one to refuse a plea bargain. With the help of her children and some family friends, she defended herself in court, calling an eclectic cast of characters to the witness stand, including HBO star and Nevada Bunny Ranch owner Dennis Hof.
At the center of the case were two big questions. First, was the temple a church offering sacred sexual healing or a brothel selling sex acts? And second, was Elise "a priestess under attack," as she maintained, or was she, as the state charged, the mastermind and leader of a prostitution ring?
Earlier this year, after a colorful and at times humorous four-month trial, a jury found Elise guilty on 22 criminal counts of prostitution, maintaining a house of prostitution, illegal control of an enterprise, money laundering, pandering, racketeering, and conspiracy.
"I know it looks really bad — I know it looks like I was found guilty of everything, but honestly, there was no way for me to be honest about our practices, our ceremonies, our rituals of healing [while] being denied a religious defense. So myself and the jury, we were painted into a corner – there wasn't anything for them to do but find me guilty," she says.
The entryway of the Phoenix Goddess Temple.
Courtesy of Tracy Elise
Even before the trial ended, Elise promised that, should she lose, she'd keep fighting – at the state court of appeals, and then all the way up to the Supreme Court if necessary.
She is in the process of filing for an appeal, her son, Ben Wade, tells New Times. "She said there are over 20 lawful reasons, legal reasons, that she should not be in jail right now, and all are based on Arizona laws," Wade says.
Asked about a timetable for the appeal, he says the family doesn't have an answer yet.
"But this is going to get bigger and more political. I can't wait to expose them for what they really did, but it's going to be a process," he adds. "We feel great. The law is on our side. We were just denied justice, that's all. It happens every day in court."
Wade, who speaks often with his mother, sent New Times a series of recorded phone conversations he has had with Elise recently, in which she speaks about the status of the case.
"The way the story got left was that the prosecutor's office said to the press, 'Okay, this is a real religion, we found Ms. Elise to be sincere … and that the leadership of the temple was religiously motivated,'" Elise says.
"All of the world's major religions do not allow women to interpret God's will in our lives. So we're starting out with this super-minority of women standing there saying, 'We're interpreting the mother aspect of God, and she wants sacred sexuality.' But we're living in a society where the dominant philosophy is that if sex is outside of marriage, God is not happy with you; if sex is for anything other than procreation, God is not happy with you. But that's not what these ancient religions say."
In other words, the cards were stacked against her.
But she's going to continue fighting, she explains, because she thinks – rather, she knows – she'll win in higher court.
Constitutional laws concerning the freedom of religion were unfairly ignored throughout the trial, she explains, adding that "in Arizona, the jury can ask questions of the witnesses, and in the case, for the first five or six witnesses, the jury kept asking, 'But this is a church and they weren't hurting anyone, what about their constitutional rights?' And Judge [Sherry K.] Stephens wouldn't answer those questions — literally, those questions were tabled."
Tracy Elise (center) and two of her three children: Sylvia Wade and Ben Wade.
Courtesy of Tracy Elise
Later in the tapes, she talks about how, in her opinion, the DA's office misled the grand jury and the media about facts of the case, and also withheld or ignored exculpatory evidence that would have exonerated her.
These are the arguments, she says, upon which she plans to base her appeal.
"I have no reason not to tell the truth. I'm proud of who we are and what we accomplished in the healing aspects," she says.
"So what does this mean to us in the future?" she says in her public message to her followers. "Well, you have my promise, you have my vow — I made an oath before I even knew what God was going to ask of me, I made a promise to my heavenly father when I was about 7 or 8 years old, that I would take on some sort of task. And this is the task. I'm honored to be in this with you, I'm honored to be your champion, and do not give up your hope that we will have justice."
Listen to Tracy Elise's full message below:
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