After four months of colorful or otherwise sexually explicit testimony from a wide array of witnesses, the criminal trial against Tracy Elise – founder and head priestess of the Phoenix Goddess Temple – is scheduled to end Tuesday afternoon, and her fate will be placed in the hands of a jury.
Elise is being charged with 22 criminal counts of prostitution, maintaining a house of prostitution, illegal control of an enterprise, money laundering, pandering, racketeering, and conspiracy for her role in operating the Goddess Temple, and she faces at least three years in prison if convicted.
At the center of the case is whether the temple was a church offering sacred sexual healing or a brothel selling sex acts, and whether she is “a priestess under attack” or the head honcho of an underground prostitution ring.
Elise and dozens of other temple workers (called practitioners) were arrested in 2011 after a New Times cover story that accused the temple of being a new age brothel caught the eye of the Phoenix Police Department. The police began a six-month undercover investigation that culminated in a dramatic international headline-grabbing raid of the temple.
With the exception of Elise and one other practitioner, Mary Elizabeth Rub, everyone accused in the case has taken a state plea bargain — some have even testified against Elise.
Throughout the four-month trial, much time has been spent discussing the minutiae of how the temple operated, namely whether money left by those coming to it (seekers) constituted donations to the church or an explicit fee for services rendered.
In a sense, the entire case rests upon the nature of this so-called “fee agreement” – was it really a donation system in which men could leave hundreds of dollars or nothing at all, or does the fact that most men left the recommended amount prove that there was in fact a price for certain healing ceremonies?
Both sides have offered oral testimony and physical evidence to prove their respective opinions, and it will be up to the jury to weigh the competing arguments.
Meanwhile, though the state and Elise — who is representing herself in the trial — disagree on most issues, there is one thing on which they see eye-to-eye: that nothing in this case has been normal or usual.
“This is not your standard prostitution trial,” Deputy County Attorney Chris Sammons told the jury in his closing statement late last week. “We’ve heard from goddesses, a high priestess, a Native American medicine man, a guru, a reality TV star, a porn star, two alien aficionados, and a naked life coach.”
At times, the trial has been humorous – there were more than a few sex jokes made during long days in court – and everyone in the courtroom, from the prosecuting attorneys to the judge and jury, could be seen trying to conceal a smile.
Witnesses have brought peace pipes, peacock feathers, and pine cones into the trial, and a binder full of Backpage.com ads was frequently held up as evidence.
Some of the entertainment spilled over into the first day of closing statements, as the state likened the temple to a chain of fast food restaurants and accused Elise of “living in unicorn land,” while Elise announced she intended to let the holy spirit speak through her, and later spent a few minutes thanking the prosecuting attorneys for not “smashing” or “tearing” her apart like they would any bar-certified lawyer.
But for all the theatrics, the drawn-out trial is to end Tuesday – Judge Sherry K. Stephens announced that Elise has two hours to finish her closing statements, that the state has one hour for rebuttal, and that she the bench will cut off anyone who tries to go overtime.
Throughout the trial, Elise has maintained and presented evidence that her temple was in fact a sanctioned Oklevueha Native American church and that tantra and sacred sexuality were part of her religion – meaning the state violated her religious freedoms by raiding and shutting down her temple — but in a devastating blow to this argument, Judge Stephens ruled last week that Elise could not successfully use religious discrimination as a defense in a prostitution case and that the jury instructions were to preclude any language referencing freedom of religion laws.
“We’re standing in a courtroom that doesn’t allow Constitutional arguments,” Elise pleaded with the jury. “The Constitution is there to protect all religions, why is my religion being singled out?” “Religion is a defense to some things, to certain crimes,” Sammons explained in his closing argument, mentioning peyote as an example. “It can be a defense; it’s just not a defense to prostitution. Ms. Elise will never understand that.”
To be clear, he emphasized, “There is no law on the books that prevents her from practicing her religion of sacred sexuality. She can do all of her religious practices and not commit a single crime. But she’s here today because she made a conscious decision that she wants to make a living off this.
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“She wants to do things her way, and her way is one-on-one sessions where men leave money when it’s done. That’s fine, but it’s a crime.”
During her closing arguments, Elise made a point of explaining that the state doesn’t understand her religion because its employees “live in the world of ‘sex for money’ . . . The government doesn’t get to decide whether something is sacred or not sacred and what a ceremony is.”
Remember, she added, “I will walk out of here as a woman guilty of what [the state says], or I will walk out of here innocent and as a priestess.”