May 21, 1999
The Five Percenters: Racist Prison Gang or Persecuted Religion?
-- Jonathan Moore
Prisons offer plentiful and self-contained opportunities to explore the limits of American religious freedom. One recent case involves the clash between prison officials in South Carolina and a group called the Five Percenters.
First, a little history. The full name of the group is the Five Percent Nation of Gods and Earths, so called because its members believe that only five percent of people are aware of and teach the truth. The Five Percenters were founded by Clarence 13X, who broke away from the Nation of Islam in 1964 in order to better attend to the needs of youth. In 1967 Clarence 13X opened the "Allah School in Mecca," and this Harlem institution still serves as the headquarters for the Five Percenters.
What the group believes and how it acts on those beliefs is precisely at the heart of the dispute described below, but some generalizations hold true. Most Five Percenters, rejecting any scent of organized religion, prefer to think of their Nation as a culture rather than a faith. Many of the theological accoutrements of Black Muslim belief remain: many read the Qur'an and Elijah Muhammad's writings (especially his "Message to the Black Man"), and they hold to the exclusive divinity of black men. The "Gods" in the group's title refers to black male members, while the "Earths" are the black female members. As a means of concretizing their philosophy, above the entrance to the Harlem school are the words "The Black Man is God." (More information on Five Percenters and related links can be found at www.nge.org).
According to South Carolina prison officials, the Five Percenters are instead a racist gang that poses a security threat. Since 1995, the state has placed approximately seventy members in solitary confinement and has allowed them to rejoin other prisoners only if they disaffiliate, by means of signing a pledge, from the Five Percenters. In late April, a federal appeals court upheld the prison restrictions on the group, ruling that the state's concern for prison safety did not transgress the constitutional protection of the free exercise of religion: "When a prison regulation impinges on inmates' constitutional rights," the opinion argued, "the regulation is valid if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests." Attorneys for the Five Percenters plan to appeal.
Several knotty questions surround this case. In REYNOLDS V. UNITED STATES, more than a century ago, the Supreme Court drew on John Locke to make a distinction between beliefs and actions. "Laws are made for the government of actions," the Court wrote, "and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices." Have South Carolina prison officials gone beyond regulating practices by interfering with "mere religious belief and opinions" in this case? By requiring group members to sign a pledge of disaffiliation in order to rejoin the general prison population, it seems that they indeed are disallowing certain beliefs QUA beliefs.
And what actually ARE the actions of the Five Percenters that warrant segregation? Have they sparked riots and caused other kinds of trouble, as prison officials argue, or are they being persecuted for their beliefs? The appeals court noted that segregation does not require Five Percenters to give up devotional reading, prayer, or fasting, essential religious acts. But does separating out those who perform such acts constitute a violation of religious free exercise? And what of the Five Percenters' right to corporate worship? Inmates in the general prison population can attend a church service once a week. Is corporate worship being denied the Five Percenters because they cause trouble when gathered together, or are prison officials merely trying to anticipate trouble that has not yet occurred? All such questions remain alive as the case winds through the courts.
Since prison officials in at least four other states, as well as the Federal Bureau of Prisons, have also been segregating Five Percenters from the general prison population, occasions for conflict will likely increase in the future. In the meantime the Five Percenters will seek to persuade at least fifty-five percent of the U.S. Supreme Court of the merits of their case.