Prostitutes in the temple?

An Arizona organization that went by the name Phoenix Goddess Temple was raided last week. The group claims it provides religious services while the Maricopa County attorney says those services were sexual and were traded for money. Readers were not pleased with how this was presented in various media reports.

Here are a few comments from readers:

CNN’s Michael Martinez uses the term “church” repeatedly to describe a facility raided for illegal prostitution. Is that really the right term?


Arizona church is house of prostitution, police say

The word “church” was unusual. “Church” suggests Christian. But “goddess temple” does not seem remotely Christian. “Arizona Temple” might have made more sense in the headline, though confusion with Judaism was not out of the question. Then again, “temple” is easily a Hindu word.


I notice that about half the headlines on the Arizona Goddess Temple prostitution bust use the word “church,” although I can’t find any instance where the temple describes itself that way.

The term is misleading, especially if you judge by the comments at the various news sites. Readers seem to think it’s more proof of Christian hypocrisy. In fact, there appears to be no connection to Christianity at all in this temple.

So when is it correct to describe a religious organization as a “church?” Would a synagogue be called one? Or a mosque? Of course not. So why does it apply to something that’s not classified otherwise? (I can’t lay hands on my7 AP stylebook at the moment to see if there’s a rule for it.)

(Fans of scare quotes will definitely want to check out the CNN story for one paragraph in particular.)

The New York Daily News wrote:

In addition to sex-ed and sex toy classes, the church offered “sessions” to heal sexual blockages for up to $650 a pop, ABC News reported.

And that, cops say, has nothing to do with praising Jesus, or any other higher power.

Um, who’s talking about Jesus? Certainly not the people who operated the Goddess Temple. Thankfully some stories did a passable job describing those views. The ABC News link above goes to a pretty decent story.

And he local news has been all over the story. Here’s a local ABC affiliate write-up of some of the people arrested:

After being arrested and accused of prostitution, Alex Averill defended himself and his church after police said nearly 40 members of Phoenix Goddess Temple ran an organized prostitution ring out of the church.

“Our church honors and believes in the energetics of our body,” Averill said.

But Phoenix police call the church a brothel in disguise.

“I wasn’t concerned with prostitution law,” said Holly Alsop, one of the women arrested. “I was concerned with the right to practice my religion.”

The same report explained the perspective of the people offering sexual services:

When asked if he accepted money for sex Averill said, “Never. Not once.”

Instead, he claimed his clients could leave money if they wanted to.

“I do not charge for sex. I work off of donations. I work off of what people can leave me as an offering,” he said.

Averill said he would ask for $200 for a one hour session, $400 for two hours, but he would not talk about what the donations were for.

“I’m not discussing anything that does happen in those sessions,” said Averill.

Despite being arrested, Averill said if he’s released he would continue with his practice.

“’Til the day I’m dead and after that because my faith believes in eternal life.”

Apparently the woman running the organization tried a similar approach in Seattle a couple of years ago before being shut down. Most media reports tended to take the approach of making light of the claims of the practitioners. Others simply reported the news and the various perspectives, which is sufficient and preferable, in my view. Cases such as these can set a precedent for how First Amendment protections are understood. For that reason alone it’s good to have better reporting.

But presenting the religious views of these healers as “Christian” is unfair both to Christians and the accused.

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  • Will

    The Buddhist Churches of America and their member congregations have used those names for as long as I have been aware. I guess they did not get the memo that they were infringing on a Christian trademark.

    And are you going to go after various Wiccan “churches” of this and that?

    Which does not even touch the question of whether Unitarians are “Christian”? Or the “not really Christian” LDS?

    Anyway, there was a case like this some time ago in California. They seem to have learned nothing from the precedent.

  • Will

    And I would say that in real-world usage, yes, “church” IS the default pigeonhole for “religious body” or “faith community”. I grew up down the street from the Church of the Four-Leafed Clover,which offered something called “non-sectarian spiritual uplift”.

    You can’t really blame reporters if some people are so religiously illiterate that they think a “Goddess Temple” is “Christian”.

  • Jay

    Church isn’t the best word but it’s pretty much the catch-all term in America for “house of worship”. If “temple” or something similar is used it seems to have a more specific implication (Jewish, Muslim, etc.).

    Really, the reader just needs to demonstrate a few moments of due diligence to realize the “church” has no ties to Christianity at all.

  • tmatt


    Wrong. Probably the safest word they could have used is “sanctuary” or “religious sanctuary.”

    Now that refers to a center of worship, or the main room therein. However, I have used it in the past in similar circumstances.

    It’s not perfect, but CLEARLY church and temple cannot be used. The words are simply inaccurate — unless the group itself finds someway to use it. Then “so-called” might be needed.

  • Mollie

    Well, they referred to themselves as a temple, fwiw.

  • Julia

    “house of worship”

    This is so vague. What exactly does it mean?

  • Will

    No, if we use “sanctuary”, people not versed in ecclesiological terms will connect it with “place of refuge”, or even more specifically with the “sanctuary movement”.

    I have already brought up the confusion caused by Catholic (?) insistence on restricting “sanctuary” to what I learned to call the “chancel”.

    So, Tmatt, if you were covering the annual Obon Festival, would you say it was organized by “the so-called New York Buddhist Church”?

  • Frank Lockwood

    I looked up “church” in the dictionary and it said “a building for public and especially Christian worship.”

    There was a time, a century ago or so ago, when “church” was more of a catch-all phrase for houses of worship. (The Chicago Tribune and other papers referred to the Ottoman Sultan as the “head priest of the Mohammedan Church”, for example. Examples here.

    There are other old references to Jewish churches and Hindu churches if you sift through the archives.

    But these days, “temple” is a better catchall phrase — especially, in this instance — because it’s the label the group uses to describe itself.

  • gfe

    I think “church” is fine as a default term to refer to some sort of building or organization that’s religious in nature (unless the organization objects to its use or if it’s something more akin to a mosque or synagogue). We talk about “church and state” all the time when referring to religious-political issues, and certainly groups such as the Unitarians use the term “church” even though they aren’t explicitly Christian.

    Like Will said, if a reader thinks that something like “Goddess Temple” is ostensibly Christian, well, that’s not the reporter’s fault.

    In this particular case, however, I would have used the word “temple,” since that’s the term the group used, and it also speaks to the claim that this “organization” was religious in nature. I might put the word in quotes, though, at least on first reference, to indicate that it may not have its usual meaning.

    Using the term “religious sanctuary” is confusing and doesn’t get the idea across. It also can have a specific meaning that doesn’t apply in this case.

  • Tim J.

    Given that at least one reporter wrote the line “And that, cops say, has nothing to do with praising Jesus, or any other higher power” which explicitly draws a connection between the Goddess Temple and Christianity, I don’t think we can entirely let the reporter off the hook if some readers get confused and tie the two together.

  • tmatt

    I think the context for “their religious sanctuary” is vague enough, yet shows the building is linked to a group that holds itself out as a religious, uh, body.

  • Will

    Yes, when I was recently reading an account of the Leo Frank case, we find the prosecutor calling the Atlanta synagogue a “church”.

    On a slightly different tangent, I have run into journalists talking about how the Turkish government is hostile to “separation of church and state”. And, no, they were not writing about treatment of the Patriarchate.

  • Jerry

    And that, cops say, has nothing to do with praising Jesus, or any other higher power.

    Um, who’s talking about Jesus?

    The cops did and the reporter mentioned that in the story. You seem to be arguing that the reporter should not have reported what the cops said. I think it was wholly appropriate to report what someone said and to not editorialize about the validity of their statement. Besides, the statement, to me, was designed to indicate the difference between a real religion and a group trying to exploit religious liberty.

    You can argue that the cops should have phrased that comment better or perhaps the reporter did not paraphrase accurately. I would agree that could have been better worded.

    But assuming the story accurately reflects what they said, your ire should have been directed differently.

  • Don Neuendorf

    The word “church” is used pretty generically. If there’s confusion about which “house of worship” is which, well I guess that just reflects the general confusion of society about religion.

    I don’t see that as the major religious ghost here. To me the real issue revolves around, as someone above put it, whether or not this is a “so called” church. Is this really a religion, or is it just a religious front for a commercial operation? I don’t see anything in the story that illuminates that question. Do they have a body of religious literature explaining their beliefs? Do they identify a deity? Do they gather for worship, or only provide “counseling” services? Is prayer involved? All of these things are simple questions to answer, but they don’t seem to have been asked. They won’t necessarily be definitive, but they’d get us a lot closer to a definition.

  • Dave

    As a Pagan I want to thank GR for being alert to this use of language. To me, something calling itself “Phoenix Goddess Temple” sounds Pagan unless proven otherwise, so “temple” would be appropriate. But I would not expect quoted cops to know that.

    Reporters who want to be better informed might check out The Wild Hunt, for a discussion of whether this clearly Pagan self-identification is sincere or a facade.

  • dalea

    Somehow the talk of blockages and energetics reminds me of Scientology. Or certain types of ceremonial magic. Can’t think of any other religions that uses them.

    In the 70′s there was a NeoPagan group that ran into the same problem. It came from the Discordian movement and called itself The Tactile Temple of Eris Erotic. It was shut down for prostitution and sort of disappeared.

    This is a very strange story, one that seems to require a knowledge of really esoteric religious believes.

  • Jay

    tmatt- I don’t think “church” is the best word either, I was referring to what (I believe) was the more common usage of the word.

  • Marie

    I don’t immediately see a problem with using the term “church.” Some religious structure identifiers are universally linked with specific faiths (Mosque-Islam or Synagog-Jewish) however others have wider usage so context is necessary. For example “Temple” can be Jewish, Mormon, Hindu, Buddhist, Pagan, ancient Greek, etc. Church simply imply’s religious body, both as a structure and an organization. Not all groups who self identify with there term “church” consider themselves to be Christian. The reader should use context to determine the faith of the group in any story that uses the term.
    That being said, to paraphrase, or even quote, a police officer implying that the organization is in some way Christian (i.e. praying to Jesus) does the reader a disservice. It leaves confusion as to whether the Phoenix Goddess Temple actually prays to Jesus or if the officer is simply stating that there is not a connection between the Temple’s practices and any faith.

  • Will

    Frankly, I am automatically suspicious of indirect “quotations”. Is it what the police said, or the reporter’s gloss on what they said?

    In 1972, the NY Times ran a story involving a Bible college named “Philathea”, in which it was claimed that an academic “expert” told them that “Philathea was a nonword, meaning nothing”. However in this case, the expert not only wrote to deny that this was what he said (and asked parenthetically just what makes something a “nonword”), but the Times ran his letter. I can only wonder how many such complaints were NOT printed.

    My daddy said “Never tell reporters anything, they will only twist it.”

  • astrid

    i just wanted to say thank you to all of you for this civilized discussion. this is the first one i’ve found. i have practiced at PGT and know what the real story is. obviously i cant say more than i am because of legal reasons but what i can say is we are legally a church. we practice tantra (i am a tantrika) and i have been educated as such. we worship the goddess – the mother and the father are equally important. we have high holy days that are pagan in timing, we do moon circles which are wiccan in tradition. we believe that energy flows through our chakras and that energy can be increased with the connection of between two or more people. we live in love and light. we are peaceful people. the fact that they dispatched SWAT teams to take my sisters and brothers into custody is beyond reprehensable. we know that the state and that the city is broke. the first thing they did was make our temple mother open the safe. they think we are this huge money making entity when in fact the church is 50k in debt, having trouble paying our rent and keeping the lights on. we live in poverty. i myself own nothing as do most of our goddesses and high priestess tracy. and yes, tracy does believe in jesus. she was a devout catholic but felt a calling to the mother, the goddess. we believe in all religions and take them as valid w/o judgement. goddess temples are all over the world. they began in india about 5,000 years ago. they are only new to the u.s., and our numbers are growing. i’m not even going to get into the incident in sedona where 6 native americans were practically assalted while a swiss film crew had cameras rolling executing the phoenix warrent. the bail for tracy when arrested is 500.000 dollars. it is crazy. and she is still in jail there, waiting to be transfered yet to be charged!! they desicrated our alters which is a hate crime, harrassed native americans at gun point and detained w/o warrant swiss nationals who are filing charges with the state dept.
    church or temple – we believe in a higher source and we are connected to that source. i have done nothing wrong.

  • Guest

    Tantra and religion does not go together. Tantra is beyond religion… it is fundamentally non-dual, one with pure awareness and part of all that exists. Each and everybody, knowingly or unknowingly is always embedded in the ever lasting embrace of that union which just simply is. Tantra is overcoming all sense of separation, does not create any story, does not prefer one person over another and sees arising phenomena as divine sacred expression of that union which cannot be explained in words. Nobody is more sacred than anybody else and nobody is more a God or Goddess than anybody else. Tantra goes even beyond the word tantra for if you deeply investigate it, it cannot be found unless we create a story around it. Tantra has been made into a story to fulfill human desire. Liberation and enlightenment can not easily arise in people who are still caught up in picking and choosing one person or situation over another and in preferences and dramas. Tantra is always non-dual in awareness and what it cannot be understood by the conditioned mind which supports dysfunctional habit patterns and attachments. Remember that the tantric union embraces all expressions of life and is supremely tolerant embraces the positive and negative as an arising force all is to exist for what it is – as is – acceptance is the key. This does not mean that people who think they follow the non-existing path of tantra (there is really no path as such – as “the path” can not be found in the entire universa) are behaving like doormats… one does the obvious, help others in need as we are one, love – making sure nobody else gets hurt… in fact, act for the good and benefit of all beings of the universe, you serve them all – love them all, merge and allow supreme tolerance… Tantra embraces the unconditioned – and the conditioned alike… this is the energy, subtle, spacious, open… crisp, fresh… With this compassion – help the leper, kiss the homeless and all people alike… no picking and choosing any longer… no attachment… And, the best of it is… you need to do nothing to be a tantric, no energy work, no sex…. just the awareness the resting in awareness is enough to open all doors of the universe… there is no separation, no drama, just allow life – allow everything… unconditionally. Who can do this? Most can’t – over time but one gets better at being tolerant. Remember, Tantra is non-dual, not a religion, not a path, not anything other than what we all are. I agree that some are alchemical great lovers out there… but that is not greater than the love and devotion we have for the unity which has forgotten past, future and even this moment as all just becomes an incredible flow… of expansive tolerance. Nothing needs to happen and tantra is happening… we don’t know at the end how it works but it does. Tantra, brings the mind into pure awareness — with no need, nothing to do, nowhere to go – there is only a never ending arriving… Go figure! Ultimately, the deeper we go, the less we really understand about the unconditioned union. Just keep in mind to do what is best for the good and benefit of all beings.
    May all be happy in their exploration of life and act for the good and benefit of all.