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After a six-month undercover investigation, Phoenix police have indicted 33 employees of the Phoenix Goddess Temple--a spiritual facility that focuses on neo-tantric healing and sex therapies.
Though police have been unable to arrest a number of the suspects, they remain accused of conspiracy, operating a criminal enterprise, massaging without a license, and of course, prostitution.
Law enforcement allegedly found evidence that the church's "practitioners"--both men and women--performed sexual acts in exchange for "donations."
Alex Averill, a "shaman" at the Phoenix Goddess Temple, confirms this theory, explaining: "No, I do not charge for sex. I work off donations. I work off of what people can leave me as offerings."
He also told Fox News that he is "devoted to healing people."
This very well may be true, but as Sgt. Steve Martos told CNN, religious practice is not an exception to prostitution laws.
In Employment Division v. Smith, the Supreme Court found that religious beliefs do not excuse a failure to comply with generally applicable laws.
However, many states (and the federal government) offer religious exemptions. Under these laws, an exemption must generally be granted unless the statute is the least restrictive means to promote a compelling government interest.
Aside from anti-prostitution laws, it's difficult to imagine how the government would work to prevent exploitation and health crises, as well as promote sexual morality.
For this reason, it's highly unlikely that those arrested in the raid of the Phoenix Goddess Temple will be able to use their religious and spiritual beliefs as a defense to prostitution.