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Virginia Federal Court Holds Nation of Gods and Earth is a Religion

A federal district court has ordered the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) to remove the security threat group designation from the Nation of Gods and Earth (NGE), “recognize it as a religion, and afford it the rights and privileges enumerated in the Department’s operating procedure for Offender Religious Programs, including but not limited to permitting NGE adherents to observe their four honor days, possess their foundational texts, and engage in communal worship, subject to the availability of an approved spiritual leader and under the necessary visual monitoring.”

The ruling following a trial in a lawsuit filed by Virginia state prisoner Kalvin Donnell Coward. Coward said his belief system includes the idea that the black man is God and that only five percent of the population knows this to be true and can teach it to others. The NGE is thus also known as the Five Percenters.

The VDOC, however, considered NGE to be a gang whose members believe they are “racially superior.” In court, Assistant Attorney General Margaret Hoehl O’Shea argued, “This is a group of individuals who share a philosophy that they are racially superior and that they are striving to switch the circumstances around so they become, in fact, the ruling race.”

The district court found some “problematic statements” in NGE texts, which could lead some to believe it advocates for violence against whites. The texts in question state that “The Caucasian is the devil,” and “all Muslims will murder the devil, because they know he is a snake and also, if he be allowed to live, he would sting someone else. Each Muslim is required to bring four devils.”

In his testimony at trial, Coward said the four devils are lust, greed, envy and hate. They are personified as a white man due to slavery and the nation’s general history of whites working to “keep the black man down or keep the black man subjugated.”

The district court found the VDOC had violated the First Amendment and Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by classifying the NGE as a security threat group.

“After twenty-one years of tracking Five Percenters, the VDOC has not produced sufficient evidence supporting its position that the gang designation is warranted and furthers a compelling state interest,” the court wrote.

The August 28, 2017 ruling was applauded by Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University.

“We don’t base religious protections in the United States on whether or not a particular faith has broad appeal,” he said. “As much as I am deeply concerned about aspects of the philosophy, it’s their right and certainly it’s understandable that such a movement would germinate during a time when we still had laws banning interracial marriage and the Klan burning crosses throughout the south.”

On November 9, 2017, the district court awarded $310,748.30 in attorney fees and $27,520 in costs to Coward, who was represented by the law firm of Kirkland & Ellis, LLP. See: Coward v. Robinson, 276 F.Supp.3d 544 (E.D. Vir. 2017).

Other Departments of Corrections have also recognized NGE as a religion, including in Connecticut, where prison officials settled a similar case in May 2016 and agreed to allow NGE members to practice their faith to the same extent as other prisoners. [See: PLN, April 2017, p.60].

Additional source: Washington Post


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Related legal case

Coward v. Robinson