Banning Black Gods:
Law and Religions of the African Diaspora
Danielle Boaz

This excerpt is adapted from Banning Black Gods: Law and Religions of the African Diaspora and was recently published by Penn State University Press (2021).


In 2003, Toronto police officers suspected that two Jamaican-Canadian brothers were involved in a series of murders that plagued the city. They hatched a plan whereby an officer of Jamaican descent would pose as a spiritual advisor or “Obeah practitioner” to the suspects’ mother and exert spiritual pressure on the family to convince them to confess. Over the course of several months, the police deployed an elaborate ruse to impress the family with the officer’s purported spiritual power, including staging a car accident between the officer and the mother, placing dead animals on her doorstep, and even arresting the mother on manufactured charges. The brothers finally confessed to the murder during a ritual purportedly designed to end these spiritual attacks on their family, and the prosecution’s entire case rested on the statements made during the ceremony. The brothers were convicted of murder, and they appealed on the grounds that confessions made to a purported spiritual advisor should not be admissible evidence against them in court. However, in 2013, a Canadian appellate court upheld the police tactics, finding that these Afro-Jamaican rituals are not “religious.”1Queen v. Welsh, 2013 ONCA 190. This case is just one brief example of the restrictions on the freedom to practice African diaspora religions in the twenty-first century.

This book is the first broad examination of the global legal challenges faced by adherents of the most widely practiced religions or belief systems of the African diaspora in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including Obeah, Yoruba religions (i.e., Santeria/Lucumi and Candomblé), Umbanda, Palo Mayombe, Rastafari, Islam, Vodou, and Voodoo. Unlike the rich anthropological and religious studies of African diaspora faiths that often discuss their relationship to politics, law, and other facets of society, this study focuses solely on a legal perspective—considering court cases, laws, human rights reports, and related materials. Using a series of case studies of specific issues, it explores how the restrictions on the right and freedom to practice African diaspora faiths demonstrate a growing social problem known as “religious racism.”

“Religious racism” is a term that originates from Brazil, where devotees of African diaspora religions have been experiencing increasingly pervasive intolerance over the past several years. This terminology underscores that discrimination against African-based religions is more than mere prejudice against a faith or group of faiths; it is the intersection of religious intolerance and racism. There are at least two distinct yet overlapping ways in which intolerance against African-derived religions represents the juncture of racial and religious discrimination. 

First, the case studies discussed in this book demonstrate that the recent attempts to limit the practice of African diaspora religions have all the classic hallmarks of how racial prejudice has and continues to permeate legal and justice systems across the globe. For example, Afro-diasporic religious communities struggle with overpolicing in a manner that resembles similar problems experienced by racial minorities more generally. Police officers and other criminal investigators have depicted devotees of these religions as more susceptible to unlawful behavior than other faiths, leading to excessive searches of places of worship, unwarranted detentions of devotees, and disproportionate use of force during those detentions (chapters 2 and 3). Furthermore, state officials and private citizens have barred devotees from courtrooms, schools, and other public spaces as well as argued that they are unfit for certain professions (chapters 5 and 6). These attempts to exclude adepts of Africana religions from public accommodations continue a long history of race-based segregation. Perhaps most significantly, vigilantes and extremists have carried out horrendous acts of violence against devotees of African-derived religions with minimal investigation and virtually no penalties for the perpetrators (chapter 1). One could cite countless other historical and present-day examples of unprosecuted acts of violence against racial minorities. In these and other ways, intolerance against African-derived religions often mirrors and works in conjunction with broader patterns of racism in legal, social, and justice systems of the Western world. However, it is a type of racism that has been almost completely ignored amid the study of other varieties of racial discrimination. 

Not only does the term “religious racism” reflect that intolerance against Africana religions follows traditional patterns of racial discrimination, but it also signifies that prejudice against these faiths is typically motivated by anti-Black racism. Devotees of Afro-Brazilian religions often stress that persecution of their faiths is not new; rather, it is rooted in the era of slavery and scientific racism. This is not limited to Brazil—virtually all African-derived religions have a long and complicated relationship with legal systems in the Western world. The use of the term “religious racism” to describe these twenty-first-century cases and controversies emphasizes that they are not a recent phenomenon but rather are a reemergence of the previous ideologies and patterns of racially motivated persecution that began during slavery and continued throughout most of the colonial era.

Organization of the Book

This book is divided into three parts, each of which discusses one set of broader patterns of “religious racism.” Each part provides a very cursory introduction to the religions discussed in that section to allow readers who have no familiarity with African diaspora religions to utilize this book without needing to acquire other introductory materials on these faiths. Each chapter focuses on a particular challenge to religious freedom for adherents of African diaspora faiths, framing these issues in transnational and transregional perspectives, wherever possible, to understand the larger human rights disputes that country-specific studies can overlook. While the manuscript is not intended to be comprehensive of every case or every issue, it is meant to provide a broad, international perspective about the right to practice each of the examined belief systems and to discuss the general freedom to practice religions of the African diaspora over the past twenty to thirty years.

Chapter 1 begins with the most egregious affronts to religious freedom in the African diaspora—physical assaults on devotees, their homes, and their places of worship. The first part of this chapter focuses on Brazil, where recent years have seen a drastic increase in physical violence against Candomblé and Umbanda adherents. Terrorists have burned, bombed, and shot at their homes and temples, as well as physically attacked the devotees themselves. This chapter provides specific examples of these assaults as well as statistics to analyze and attempt to understand this growing issue. The second part addresses Haiti, where violence against Vodou priests and devotees became a serious issue following the devastating 2010 earthquake and subsequent cholera outbreak. It discusses the violent murders of Vodou priests by vigilantes and the Haitian government’s lackluster response.

Chapter 2 explores the most significant litigation over the practice of orisha/orixá religions—the ritual slaughter of animals. It begins with the dispute that led to the US Supreme Court’s ruling in the City of Hialeah case in 1993. Then it surveys some of the dozens of cases that US courts have heard since then, where local officials have attempted to restrict the ritual slaughter of animals in other ways. It also compares these cases to growing controversies over animal sacrifices in Brazil and Venezuela.

The use of the term “religious racism” to describe these twenty-first-century cases and controversies emphasizes that they are not a recent phenomenon but rather are a reemergence of the previous ideologies and patterns of racially motivated persecution that began during slavery and continued throughout most of the colonial era.

Chapter 3 examines a body of cases that has rarely, if ever, been discussed in the context of religious freedom. It focuses on Palo Mayombe, an Afro-Cuban religion that is one of the most controversial belief systems of the African diaspora. Palo Mayombe adherents develop reciprocal relationships with the spirits of departed persons; they create shrines where they communicate with and make offerings (food, drink, etc.) to these spirits, and the spirits provide supernatural protection and guidance to the adherents. To create a more powerful connection, devotees (“Paleros”) often use the remains of the departed person (skulls and other bones) in the shrines. This chapter explores a series of cases where Paleros and devotees of other African diaspora faiths were charged with unlawful possession of human remains and grave robbing.

The fourth chapter, the last in the first part of the book, discusses cases that have called into question the rights of devotees of African diaspora religions to gain or retain custody of minor children. These cases intersect with the others discussed in the first three chapters, stemming from the rampant discrimination against devotees that is leading to physical assaults in Brazil, concerns about animal sacrifice, as well as determinations that Palo Mayombe is not protected by religious freedom. The proceedings covered in this chapter range from criminal charges for taking children to religious ceremonies to civil disputes over custody between practitioner and nonpractitioner parents.

The second section of the book, chapters 5 and 6, introduces an interrelated set of problems about adherents’ access to public facilities and spaces such as courthouses, educational facilities, and even places of employment. Mostly centering on controversies over hair and headscarves, chapter 5 explores cases where devotees have been barred from schools because of their religious beliefs or practices. Chapter 6 examines a range of situations where litigants, lawyers, police officers, and corrections officers have been expelled from legal facilities because of disputes over their religious practices. 

Discrimination against African-based religions is more than mere prejudice against a faith or group of faiths; it is the intersection of religious intolerance and racism.

The third and final section centers on the modern boundaries of the concept of “religion.” It begins with chapter 7, which discusses the continued proscription of Obeah and highlights the contrast to the decriminalization of “witchcraft” in other parts of the former British Empire, particularly to protect the religious freedom of Spiritualists and white “witches.” Chapter 8 moves from proscription to prosecution, analyzing a range of recent cases where courts in the Americas have opined that African diaspora faiths are not religions. Finally, chapter 9 concludes with the discussion of a centuries-old issue with religious freedom for followers of African diaspora faiths—myths and misconceptions that taint public views of their faith. 

Together, these nine chapters attempt to provide a clear picture of the major challenges to religious freedom for adherents of African diaspora faiths in the twenty-first century. They cover the most significant controversies involving the most well-known and widely practiced African diaspora religions, providing the background of the controversies and the outcome of the disputes. This book introduces new issues that have never been considered as a question of religious freedom before, such as the right of Palo Mayombe devotees to possess remains of the dead. It places controversies in conversation that have not been previously regarded as analogous, such as the right to wear headscarves and the right to wear dreadlocks in schools. 

The hope is that this book will be specific enough in its legal content that instruction on African diaspora religious freedom can finally reach law and legal studies courses while including enough history and background that laypeople and practitioners can appreciate the text. I have incorporated as much detail about the practitioners and their proceedings as possible to give voice to the devotees, not just the courts’ interpretations of the proceedings. For too long, the only acknowledgment of these charges has been the loud voice of the media and government officials, skewing and sensationalizing these cases. The first step toward religious freedom in the African diaspora is ending the silence surrounding these abuses of rights and ensuring that the problem of religious racism can be acknowledged and discussed in scholarly and policy contexts. ♦

Dr. Danielle N. Boaz is an Associate Professor of Africana Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and a Fellow at the Public Religion Research Institute (2022-2023). She is also the President of the International Commission to Combat Religious Racism.

Recommended Citation

Boaz, Danielle. “Banning Black Gods: Law and Religious of the African Diaspora.” Canopy Forum, December 9, 2022.