The New Age
During a vision quest in the mountains of Higher Ground in 1998, not long before she left, she had a revelation that she was an ancient soul whose return to the Earth had been foretold by prophets past. She was told that her mission was to unite the world’s people in peace and love. The Lakota people of the Great Plains have a legend of a mystical White Buffalo Calf Woman who brought the tribe a peace pipe, a sacred tool. In Heart Wide Open, Janae’s 2010 self-published autobiography, she writes, “Was I that White Buffalo Calf Woman? Or was I simply an archetype or perhaps even a wannabe?”
Whatever the case, Janae felt compelled to pursue her revealed mission.
In 1999, during six months in a wheelchair following a car accident in Riverton (correction: the location of the crash was originally misreported) in which her passenger, a close friend, was killed, Janae was reinvigorated with a lust for life that had been lost after leaving her husband and family. She met her current husband, Brad Bird, shortly after the crash. Janae studied acupuncture and massage, thinking those skills would complement her knowledge of herbs and yoga. She dreamed of opening her own natural-medicine healing center. Tensions eased with Kurt, so visiting the children grew easier. Her 10 children have all chosen their own spiritual paths--one has chosen mainstream LDS faith--(correction: the number of children who follow mainstream LDS faith was originally misreported) but multiple family members say the clan all gets along well and none of her children are judgmental of her faith.
In 2001, she graduated from the Utah College of Massage Therapy. She moved to Las Vegas, got a job at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino, which sent her to The Watsu School at Harbin Hot Springs in California to be trained in Watsu, or water shiatsu, a massage therapy that adds buoyancy to the experience. After learning that after-class activities were clothing-optional and teachings incorporated Tantric philosophies, husband Brad accompanied her (correction: the time and place that nudity was acceptable was originally misreported). “Most people were naked in these classes,” Janae says. “He’s a man, he didn’t want me to be out there alone.”
She learned about Tantra and the spiritual power of bodywork to release kundilini energy, a force thought to coil in the spine. Releasing kundilini is “an experience of divine force coming over your body,” Janae says.
After two years in Las Vegas, the Birds returned to Salt Lake City. In 2008, they opened Heartsong Healing Center—and, later, The Church of What Is Real.
“Originally, I was wanting to stay inside Utah laws, and we did,” Janae says.
Early on, not knowing exactly what to expect, Janae used the word “tantra” in one of Heartsong’s advertisements. Creepy people started calling. Janae says that’s because popular culture portrays tantra as sexually exotic, not sensually spiritual, as she sees it.
Nevertheless, besides the creeps, she met men who suffered from sexual dysfunctions and precancerous prostate conditions. There was an opportunity, she says, to help the community utilize energies—including sexual energies—that many individuals have repressed for most of their lives, which may be unhealthy. New research suggests men over 50 who ejaculate at least once per week have lower risks of prostate cancer, for example. That type of Western-medicine research fits in neatly with Janae’s New Age faith in mind-body-spirit connections.
Janae came to respect her spiritual calling more than the law. First, Heartsong’s focus on “advanced therapies”—like Watsu, ashiatsu and other disciplines not offered by many spas—was good for business, as was the Ananda Nirvana, she says. Second, Janae believes sexual energy is just one of several chakras, no more perverted than the others. Third, Janae is indignant about her rights: she believes now, as then, that religious freedom should protect her work.
“This was not a jack-off shop. Those are a dime a dozen. Just go on Craigslist,” Janae says. “Kudos to them, but here [at Heartsong], it goes so much deeper. I am about holistic energy.”
Thus The Church of What Is Real was born. “We weren’t wanting to raise any red flags proclaiming we were a ‘tantric temple,’ ” she says, explaining why The Church of What Is Real was never officially incorporated with legal paperwork. “We didn’t have the ... church registered or listed on any written forms. Rather, it was explained to each member verbally as they joined.” The religious relationship between Janae and her clients, she thinks, should provide protection from law enforcement based on the First Amendment’s free exercise clause. “I was trying to maneuver it to do it legally and with complete integrity,” she says.
That did not protect her from arrest, however, nor did it stop the City of Holladay from revoking her business license, a decision she hopes to appeal, but finding an attorney she can afford has been difficult since her spa business was shut down. She now qualifies for a public defender in her criminal case.
So, she’s called to her defense a kindred spirit known by prosecutors statewide, James Warren Flaming Eagle Mooney. After his arrest in 2000, he faced decades in prison for distributing peyote to church members of his Okleveuha Native American Church—many of whom were not Native American. Reviled by many in American Indian communities and accused of being a “plastic shaman” who peddles ancient rites for cash, Mooney says those who believe only American Indians are entitled to peyote are simply racist. That’s like saying “you can not practice the Roman Catholic religion [and] you cannot take their wine sacrament unless you are actually from Rome,” he says.
Racist or not, the Utah Attorney General’s Office argued only American Indians are entitled to peyote under the law. Years of litigation later, however, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that the exception was for members of Native American churches who used peyote “in bona fide religious ceremonies” regardless of race. That case was dismissed in 2004.
Then the U.S. Attorney’s office picked up the case, also charging Mooney with drug crimes (pdf) that could have lead to decades in prison. Unrelated to Mooney but during his case, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a New Mexico religious sect was entitled to ayahuasca, a controlled substance derived from a Brazilian vine, to fulfill its religious duties. Mooney’s federal case was dismissed shortly thereafter in 2006.
Janae believes Mooney “set up a precedent … that we have a right to our spiritual practices.” That is, after all, what he tells people these days as he solicits $100 to join his church. Janae recently invited Mooney to Heartsong, where a group of her friends and clients gathered to hear him speak.
Among the attendees and new members of Mooney’s church was Wovoka Golden Eagle. Golden Eagle grows cannabis and says cancer can be cured with marijuana. It’s a religious calling, he says, to proselytize on behalf of earth-based medicine like cannabis.
Like Golden Eagle, Janae has enrolled in Mooney’s church hoping that it will bring her more protection than her own church has.
Law’s Long Arm
Civil-rights attorney Andrew McCullough, who is also the Libertarian Party candidate for Utah governor, is dubious that Mooney’s cases will help Janae in court. He says the Utah Supreme Court has rejected the idea that religion-based, illegal sexual practices should be protected by the free-exercise clause First Amendment. “What I’ve seen from the Utah Supreme Court has been pretty conservative,” he says.
McCullough referred to a 2004 case, State v. Green, in which Utah’s highest court upheld prohibitions against polygamy. The court deferred to the U.S. Supreme Court precedent set in Reynolds v. United States, the 1878 U.S. Supreme Court case in which George Reynolds, a later-named General Authority to the LDS Church, was denied an exception to polygamy prohibitions. In 1878 and 2004, the courts found that polygamy causes social harm and therefore governments have sufficiently compelling interests in prohibiting it—even if it infringes on someone’s religious exercise. The Reynolds case also established the principle that religious rights must be limited sometimes, or the First Amendment would “permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”
Salt Lake County District Attorney Lohra Miller declined to discuss Janae’s case in particular because it is ongoing but said prohibitions against prostitution are justified because “there are innocent third parties injured,” including families and spouses of the clients. Miller says situations in which there is no victim and religion plays a role could be handled more leniently by prosecutors and judges, if the facts of the case warrant it—but, Miller believes, there should be no categorical exceptions to prostitution laws. Miller contrasted prostitution to sodomy, a practice that she says has no innocent third-party victim.
In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. In Lawrence v. Texas, the court found that consenting adults have a right to sexual practices—in that case, homosexual sodomy—in the privacy of their homes without suffering the social stigma of arrest. The court dismissed claims that homosexual sodomy causes societal harm sufficient to justify prohibition—and Lawrence didn’t even make any religious claims.
In sum, to win her case and set a new precedent—as Janae dreams of doing—she would have to convince the courts that the Ananda Nirvana is harmless like sodomy, not harmful like polygamy allegedly is. It may be tough, but Janae is feeling bold. “I’m not taking any plea bargains,” she says.
She may have to prove also that her New Age religious beliefs are sincere and that the Ananda Nirvana is a bona fide expression of that religion. Asked to describe what she believes and how that inspired her work, Janae cites yet another ancient philosophy.
“It’s like Taoism. Once you try to define God, you’ve lost it. You have to experience it,” she said. “That’s what I offered at Heartsong.”
Skinny-Dipper Crackdown, in which Janae Thorne-Bird was quoted less than one month prior to her arrest.(December 16, 2009)
Peyote, Religion and the War on Drugs: Is James Mooney a drug pusher hiding behind religious freedom or a Medicine Man seeking spirituality? (March 1, 2001)