Touched by an Angel

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In court papers filed last week, attorneys for John LaVoie, pastor of the "Church of Liberty" in Tucson, Arizona, argued that the civil-forfeiture proceeding against LaVoie is unconstitutional because it violates his right to freedom of religion.  Specifically, they said that an order closing LaVoie’s business and requiring him to forfeit $2 million in assets is unenforceable because the charges involve the "laying on of hands," a recognized Christian ceremonial act.

You probably see where this is going.

In addition to his pastoral duties, LaVoie ran the Angel’s Heaven Relaxation Spa, which he said had the mission of "comfort[ing] the afflicted through the religious act of laying on of hands."  But police say, and an Arizona jury found, that the hands belonged to prostitutes and that they were being laid on male customers in exchange for money.  LaVoie has denied that, a position somewhat weakened by the admission of a Tucson police detective that his investigation of the spa was successful — that is, he succeeded in repeatedly having sex with a spa employee (including once in his police car).

The detective’s inappropriate conduct torpedoed any chance of a criminal prosecution, but the attorney general proceeded with civil forfeiture.  On July 30, a jury found against LaVoie on 22 counts of racketeering, money laundering and other offenses.  Jurors evidently concluded that the "Angels" employed at the spa were doing more than just comforting troubled souls.

Now, however, LaVoie’s attorneys are challenging the order, saying their client "has every right under the First Amendment to freely exercise his religion, which religion includes offering comfort through the laying on of hands."  They wrote that "[t]he offer of comfort by this means is based on several Biblical passages."  The report didn’t say what passages they cited — the laying on of hands is mentioned many times in the Bible, but while it is frequently used for consecration and healing I was unable to find any passage in which the hands were actually massaging anything at all.  LaVoie may have waived the argument anyway, since prosecutors say he did not raise it at trial.

The report also noted that in February 2006, while the civil-forfeiture case was pending, LaVoie was apparently asked to deliver an invocation at a meeting of the Pima County Board of Supervisors.  It turned out that a staff member had picked him at random from the phone book.  "We had no idea at that time," said a clerk, that police had already raided Angel’s Heaven or that the supervisors were being blessed by a racketeer.

Link: Arizona Daily Star