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African Religions in U.S. Courts

In the Western Hemisphere, nearly every country that has a substantial population of people of African descent has banned African-derived religions or their central practices at some point since the 18th century. The United States is no exception to this rule; however, the legal history of African religions in this country is distinct from that of the rest of the Americas in several important ways. First and foremost, in the United States, the majority of high-profile legal controversies surrounding African diaspora religions have occurred between the mid-20th century and present day. On the other hand, the proscription and prosecution of African religions in the rest of the Americas typically peaked between the mid-18th century and the mid-20th century. Second, while many countries in the Western hemisphere passed laws explicitly targeting African spiritual practices, controversies in the United States have almost exclusively involved generally applicable legislation (laws that apply to all residents and that were not specifically passed to ban African religions). Third, the majority of the restrictions on the practice of African religions in the United States have focused on those religions that made their way to the United States through secondary migrations from the Caribbean. Other countries primarily proscribed religions that arrived directly through enslaved Africans and/or nineteenth century migrations between the Americas and the African continent.

Prior to emancipation, many colonies in the Americas passed legislation limiting African spiritual practices because these practices were associated with acts of resistance and rebellion among enslaved persons. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, in particular, enslaved Africans utilized charms, rituals, and herbal knowledge in numerous planned and actual uprisings. This prompted colonial legislators, for example, to ban “superstitious assemblies” and the possession of charms (makandals) in St. Domingue and to proscribe the practice of obeah (an ambiguous term referring primarily to African spiritual practices) in most of the British Caribbean.

In the United States, African religions played a role in numerous acts of resistance and rebellion but did not result in any major legislation directly targeting them. Some states or localities passed legislation prohibiting “conjure” practices and, particularly after Nat Turner’s rebellion, other laws limited enslaved persons’ rights to preach, read the bible, or otherwise practice Christianity. However, these laws were not as broad as many of those in the Caribbean (which often banned all “superstitious” practices or exercises of supernatural power) nor as directly targeted at African-derived elements of religious practice. This was true even of the United State’s most well-known African derived religion: Voodoo.

In the 1850s and 1860s, authorities repeatedly arrested women described as “voudou practitioners” in New Orleans. The media often emphasized that these women were supposedly engaged in “indecent” behavior and “barbarous” rituals (i.e., alleging that they were found naked, dancing around cauldrons) and editorials lamented the dangers of these “superstitions.” However, rather than developing specific laws to prosecute “voudou practitioners,” authorities typically charged these women with unlawful assembly (because enslaved and free women were gathered together).

After emancipation, many countries in the Western Hemisphere passed new legislation attempting to suppress the religious practices of the formerly enslaved under the guise of “civilizing” their populations. Countries like Brazil, Jamaica, Cuba, and Haiti enacted laws that prohibited persons from engaging in “superstitious” rituals, fortunetelling, vagrancy, and similar practices. In the United States, African American herbalists and sages (whom the media described as “voodoo doctors”) were also arrested for providing medico-religious and divination services. However, once again, the U.S. government deployed generally applicable laws to suppress these practices; they did not craft new legislation to target the “superstitions” of the formerly enslaved. These individuals were charged with contravening laws against obtaining money by false pretenses, mail fraud, practicing medicine without a license, and related offenses.

Perhaps the most striking element of the history of African religions in the United States is that the majority of cases seem to have arisen since the mid-20th century and have dealt with African religions that arrived through migrations of ideas and people from the Caribbean. There are numerous examples, but I will briefly note a couple of these cases that reached the highest courts.

In the 1970s, the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church (a controversial, predominantly white, sect of Rastafari adherents) established a religious base on Star Island, a wealthy residential neighborhood off the shores of Miami Beach, Florida. Part of the Church’s mission was to legalize cannabis, and they indeed found themselves at the center of two of the earliest major cases about the right to use illegal substances as a religious sacrament. The first began in Southern Florida, when local courts issued an injunction banning the Church from using marijuana as a sacrament. The Coptic Church appealed this injunction asserting that religious freedom superseded the need for uniform enforcement of anti-drug legislation. They cited an earlier decision where the California Supreme Court had dismissed criminal proceedings against several Navajo people who were charged with violating controlled substances laws for their sacramental use of peyote. When the Coptic Church’s case reached the Florida Supreme Court in 1979, the judges upheld the injunction, distinguishing the Coptic Church from Native American peyote users by suggesting that the former’s use of marijuana was more recreational than sacramental and that to legalize marijuana for religious purposes would essentially amount to legalizing it for any purpose. Shortly thereafter, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) raided the Star Island compound and arrested nineteen members for violating the Controlled Substances Act.

While these civil and criminal proceedings were going on in Florida, another member of this branch of the Coptic Church was arrested in Iowa when he was discovered with thousands of dollars in cash and more than 100 pounds of marijuana. He was charged with unlawful possession and intent to distribute. Over the next few years, he would litigate his case all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court, challenging his arrest on grounds of religious freedom. In 1984, the Court ruled against him, citing similar concerns about rampant drug use as those expressed by the Florida Supreme Court in 1979.

Not long after the Coptic Church’s marijuana cases made headline news, another controversy surrounding an African Caribbean religion began in Southern Florida. In 1987, the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, members of a faith alternately referred to as Regla de Ocha, Lukumi, and (some argue disparagingly) Santeria, announced their plans to open a place of worship, school, and cultural center in the City of Hialeah. The City Council of Hialeah passed several resolutions restricting the ritual of slaughter of animals in hopes that banning a central practice of the faith would prevent the Church from opening its facility. The Church filed suit contesting these laws on several grounds; central among these, of course, was that their religious freedom had been violated. Six years of litigation followed, with the lower courts upholding the city ordinances banning animal sacrifice. However, in 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court found in favor of the Church, determining that the City Council had violated their religious freedom by specifically targeting the religion through ordinances proscribing animal sacrifice.

Controversies surrounding African religions continue in the United States today. Voodoo practitioners are rarely charged with fraud or practicing medicine without a license; however, if one enters the search term “voodoo” into any state or federal case database, thousands of entries appear in proceedings related to divorce, child custody, employment discrimination, and religious freedom, among other things. Cases regarding the right to practice animal sacrifice have persisted into the 21st century as well, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye case. Rastafarians have also continued to struggle with the right to use marijuana as a sacrament, with judges often expressing concerns about the sincerity of their beliefs and about the frequency of use, which were raised in the Coptic Church cases. The right to practice African and African-Caribbean religions has also been increasingly restricted in Canada and parts of Europe. Therefore, ironically, as the removal of restrictive laws from the eras of slavery and colonization promise African Caribbean persons greater religious freedom in their homelands, these individuals face increasing religious persecution and prosecution as they migrate to the global North.

Danielle N. Boaz is an Assistant Professor in the Africana Studies Department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she offers courses on human rights, social justice, and the law. Dr. Boaz’s research focuses on the legal proscription of African cultural practices in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the modern day impact of those laws on public perceptions of these practices.