A clash between a black Muslim based group and the prison system raises new questions about how much the state can restrict religious groups based on judgment of their beliefs and practices.
The online newsletter Sightings (May 10) reports that the current conflict involves the group 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 ex-members of the Nation of Islam in 1964.
The Harlem, N.Y.-based group is increasingly clashing with law officials about its religious nature and potential for violence in the prison system. While most Five Percenters deny that they are an organized religion and consider their “nation” a culture rather than a faith, they retain religious elements from their Black Muslim past, such as revering the Qur’an and Elijah Muhammad’s writings and holding to the exclusive divinity of black men.
South Carolina prison officials maintain that Five Percenters are a racist gang that pose 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.
Writer Jonathan Moore notes that such actions have been technically allowed by Supreme Court. While actions and practices can be restricted by the state, beliefs have protection against such interference. By requiring group members to sign a pledge of disaffiliation in order to rejoin the general prison population, it seems to observers that they indeed are disallowing certain beliefs and prohibiting their right to worship.
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, Moore concludes.