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?

and

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.

and

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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