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Santa Clarita / Antelope Valley : Church Challenges County Sex Laws : Religion: A Santa Clarita couple who were convicted for practices related to their faith seek to legalize their rituals.

September 24, 1993|JONATHAN GAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA CLARITA — The leaders of a church with sexual intercourse as an integral part of its rituals have filed suit against Los Angeles County to overturn pandering and prostitution laws.

Mary Ellen Tracy, head of the Church of the Most High Goddess, filed the lawsuit last Friday in an effort to legalize the meetings of her church. The complaint details a religion that uses sex as a symbolic dedication to the church.

Tracy, also known as Sabrina Aset, and her husband, Will Tracy, were arrested and convicted in 1989 for pimping, pandering, prostitution and keeping a house of ill fame for activities related to their church. Mary Ellen Tracy was sentenced to one year in jail and Will Tracy six months.

"We do have sexual rituals, but these are things that have been handed down from ancient times," said Mary Ellen Tracy, who says her church has its roots in Egyptian, Sumerian and Greek cultures. "They are specific acts that are done for a symbolic reason."

Although the Tracys had unsuccessfully argued their case in 1989 when they were arrested, they filed their current lawsuit based on a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision giving a Florida church exemption from an ordinance proscribing animal sacrifices. That case, combined with a 1988 California Supreme Court decision overturning the pandering conviction of an Encino producer of pornographic films, they said, gives them grounds for their current lawsuit.

"Why should a filmmaker, whose only reason for paying for sex is to make money, have an exemption from pandering laws and a religion cannot," Will Tracy said.

Assistant County Counsel Richard Townsend, however, said he thinks the Tracys have misread the court's renderings.

"I doubt very seriously that anything has happened from a legal standpoint that would materially change the finding that her activities are unlawful," Townsend said.

Laws forbidding animal abuse and those against prostitution, Townsend said, have "levels of societal interests that are totally different."

"I think this is probably not going to be a very productive exercise."

Some attorneys, however, find the case quite interesting.

Stuart Goldfarb, who had been an attorney for Encino filmmaker Harold Freeman, said the case has the potential to re-examine the definition of prostitution.

In the Freeman case, Los Angeles police arrested the producer for paying actors and actresses to perform sex acts in movies. The California Supreme Court ruled that such a prosecution violates the constitutional right to free expression.

"If we now go to a church, the same issue would arise, and that would be, 'Is this sex between a customer and a prostitute?' " Goldfarb said.

In the lawsuit, the Tracys said their criminal prosecution has led to a quashing of their church and scaring away those interested in practicing their religion. They currently do not hold services or own a church building.

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