Authorities say a six-month investigation has resulted in the arrest and indictment of 18 people connected to the Phoenix Goddess Temple.
The Maricopa County Attorney's Office said Thursday evidence gathered by undercover investigators indicates that men and women "practitioners" working at the Temple were in fact performing sex acts in exchange for money.
“The First Amendment protection of the free exercise of religion does not allow individuals to trade sex for money, no matter how the transaction is portrayed,” said Maricopa County Bill Montgomery.
"I don't care if they call it a donation, a fee whether or not you want to call your activity healing or tantric practice, accepting money for sex is against the law."
Prosecutors say among the individuals arrested is Goddess Temple founder Tracy Elise.
She faces charges of prostitution, illegal control of an enterprise, pandering, and operating a house of prostitution.
Others named in the indictment face charges including conspiracy, working in a house of prostitution and massaging without a license.
"Instead of sexual intercourse, it was called sacred union, the women were not called prostitutes, they were called goddesses, instead of a brothel or a house of prostitution, they called it a church," said Sgt. Steve Martos.
"Although it is not uncommon for criminals to hide their criminal acts from law enforcement, it is particularly disheartening that some would attempt to disguise their crimes as religious freedom,” said Acting Phoenix Police Chief, Joseph Yahner.
Other arrests include: Wayne Clayton, 58, Janet Craven, 49, Tamara Brusso, Marcella Saavedra, 34, Holly Alsop, 44, Alex Averill, 23, Cynthia Bryson, 38, Marilyn Hussey, 56, Becky Carrara, 48, Dawn Colwell, 42, Theresa Eakin, 50, Amanda Twitty, 39, Heidi Winemiller, 35, Jamie Baker, 28, Patricia Boyko, 27, Sandra Brown, 40, and Niki Faldemolari.
Police say they charged $204 an hour.
A total of 33 people have been indicted, but so far, only 18 arrests have been made. Authorities are still looking for the remainder.
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