Pennsylvania Court Defers to Organization Representing African-based Religions
In a landmark decision, the Honorable James Murray Lynn of Philadelphia Common Pleas Court ruled that, in a dispute involving spiritual matters in the Voodoo religion, the Court must accept and enforce the decision of a tribunal convened by the National African Religion Congress.
“ORDER – AND NOW, on this 14th day of February, 2007, after a three-day trial before the undersigned, this Court finds that: (a) The National African Religion Congress (the “Congress”) is the recognized representative in the United States of African-based religions; (b) A tribunal of the Congress convened a hearing after due notice to Jenavia Thompson-Weaver, one of the defendants, and one of the tribunal’s findings was that said defendant was not the owner of seven (7) Govis and four (4) other shrines (collectively “the Shrines”) which the defendants had removed from the plaintiff’s sanctuary (LePeristyle Haitian Sanctuary) on September 10, 2005; (c) The question of the ownership of the Shrines is clearly a religious matter, and following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Watson v. Jones, and its progeny, this Court will apply the “Deference Rule” and give deference to the findings of the Congress’ tribunal that the Shrines do not belong to the defendants”.
LePeristyle Haitian Sanctuary, a Voodoo church located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, brought suit against Jenavia Thompson-Weaver and her husband, Jeffrey Weaver, seeking the return of Voodoo shrines. Mrs. Thompson-Weaver was a High Priestess of the Voodoo religion who severed her ties with LePeristyle and, claiming ownership, took with her sacred objects called shrines that had been dedicated to her use by Gro Mambo (High Priestess) Angela Novanyon Idizol, LePeristyle’s founder. LePeristyle brought the matter to the National African Religion Congress, an organization representing all African-based religions practiced in the Western Hemisphere, for resolution. The Congress ruled that the shrines must be returned. Suit was brought to resolve the ownership issue when the Weavers refused to return the sacred objects.
LePeristyle was represented at trial by Philadelphia attorney Jerrold (Jim) Moss, Esquire. Gro Mambo Angélá Noványón Idizol and Gro Hungan Yabofé Noványón Idizol, chairperson and president of the Congress shepherded Mr. Moss on the protocols and traditions of African based religion. The Congress also called upon Samuel Foley, Jr., Esquire (Hungan Kontanavi Elever), to aid in the research of spiritual grounds and bring a valuable perspective to the courtroom both as a Priest-in-training at LePeristyle and as an officer of the court.Research on the issue of disputes involving spiritual property was the basis for LePeristyle’s argument that the “Deference Rule” should be applied. It was in his research that he discovered that in The Presbytery of Beaver-Butler of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States vs. Middlesex Presbyterian Church, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, citing the 1871 decision of the United States Supreme Court in Watson vs. Jones, established the Deference Rule as law in Pennsylvania. The Deference Rule states that “whenever the questions of discipline, or of faith, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law have been decided by the highest of these church judicatories to which the matter has been carried, the legal tribunals must accept such decisions as final, and as binding on them in their application to the case before them.” Because this was new ground for Mr. Moss, Gro Mambo Angélá and Gro Hungan Yabofé provided him with the doctrines and protocols of the religion. Mr. Moss was educated by these representatives of LePeristyle in African-based religion and had to be trusted by them with information on the religion to become the expert on African-based religion that he is now.
The testimony offered during the three-day trial by George Ware, a High Priest of the Voodoo religion and President of the National African Religion Congress, educated the Court regarding the history of the practice of African religion in the West and the relationship between these religions (Voodoo, Santeria, Candomble, Yoruba) and the traditional West African religions from which they originated. Chief Adeleya Adelekan, a member of the Council of Elders in the Yoruba nation from Ile-Ife, Nigeria and worldwide moderator of babalawos (Ifa priests), traveled from London, England, to testify regarding the traditions surrounding the ownership of shrines. The Honorable James Murray Lynn accepted Chief Adelekan’s testimony that the National African Religion Congress is recognized by the hierarchy of the seminal traditional African religions as having the authority to resolve spiritual disputes in America. He noted that the Voodoo and other African-based religions have common traditions, and observed that the traditional Yoruba religious hierarchy is similar to the Roman Catholic hierarchy.
In his groundbreaking February 14, 2007 decision, Judge Lynn determined that the issue of the ownership of the shrines was of such a spiritual nature that, under Pennsylvania law, a civil court must give deference to the decision reached by a properly-constituted tribunal of the National African Religion Congress, a recognized spiritual authority, and ordered that the shrines be immediately returned to LePeristyle Haitian Sanctuary. This decision confirms that practitioners of African-based religions may enforce their own organizational decisions on conflicts involving spiritual issues in Pennsylvania’s civil courts.
Why this case is important to practitioners of African-based religion in America
One of the biggest obstacles faced by practitioners is the way in which American society views African religion. The ignorance and prejudice of mainstream society with regard to African-based religion fosters negative impressions and stereotypes which, if not challenged, become ingrained in American culture. This negativity creates a bias which undermines the credibility of legitimate priests and priestesses, even when the issue to be addressed is one involving religious doctrine or protocol. When questions such as “Who is a legitimate priest?” or “What practices are legitimate?” are asked, society tends to turn to its own experts, so-called “scholars,” for answers. This has caused heads of houses and other practitioners to believe that they could not be assisted by the courts in the resolution of spiritual disputes.
NARC has, from its inception, taken the position that the true experts on matters involving the doctrines and protocols of African-based religions are the practitioners of these religions, and that the final decision on spiritual matters should be made within the religions. When, as in the Weaver case, the issue cannot be resolved without the assistance of civil or criminal authorities, how can an appropriate result be achieved without reliance on the protocols and doctrines of the religion for guidance? LePeristyle vs. Weaver demonstrates that, with the guidance of the divine forces and the efforts of well-informed legal counsel, it is possible for practitioners of African-based religion to have the court system acknowledge the expertise of practitioners with respect to spiritual matters and to enforce spiritual judgments.
The Loa Papa Ogu said that “the land dictates” the manner in which African-based religion is practiced. Here in America, our ability to utilize the instruments of modern society to achieve any goal depends upon the manner in which we are organized and conduct ourselves. Though ours is an oral tradition, documentation is the key to success in almost any non-criminal legal matter. The prospects for success in any court battle, over shrine ownership or any other issue, are greatly enhanced by the existence of such pertinent documentation.
LePeristyle vs. Weaver also demonstrated that the courts may, when properly presented, recognize the legitimacy of our spiritual practices. As the Lukumi Babalu Aye vs. Hialeah case established the constitutional protection of animal sacrifice, the LePeristyle case established the authority of heads of houses with respect to spiritual matters in their houses.
Why is this case important to NARC?
A major outcome of the LePeristyle vs. Weaver case is the court’s recognition of NARC as a legitimately representative body with the authority to convene tribunals to address spiritual issues brought to it by practitioners of African-based religion. In doing so, the court acknowledged the respect given by African-based religions of the Diaspora to the hierarchy of Ile-Ife and that Ile-Ife recognizes NARC as a legitimate representative for all African-based religions practiced nationally and internationally. The court ruled that whatever the spiritual hierarchy determined to be appropriate is the decision to which the court must defer. It must be noted that this “Deference Rule” does not apply in all states (e.g., Alabama, California, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, New York, Ohio and South Dakota), nor does it apply to matters which are not of a spiritual nature. However, this case is the first in which the courts have been used to enforce the doctrines of the Voodoo religion. It should be an encouragement to practitioners of African-based religion all across America to “STAND UP AND BE COUNTED” as we seek to discipline our behavior and elevate our standing in mainstream society.