A woman who allegedly tried to steal a Mullica Township home is among a growing number of people claiming to follow a little-known religion they say exempts them from U.S. law.
Jolanda S. Bordley-Jackson-El filed what police said was a fraudulent deed and moved her family into a vacant, foreclosed home this spring, saying that she had a right to do so as a member of the Moorish Science Temple of America.
Police, courthouse officials and real estate agents from New Jersey to California have been dealing with a slew of other bogus legal documents filed by people who also say they follow Moorish Science, with motives ranging from financial gain to simply causing a nuisance.
But no one is more exasperated by the phenomenon than the leaders of the century-old faith and organization, who say the growing crop of “paperwork terrorists” has nothing to do with their teachings.
“It’s just distressing that some individuals would take something as pure and righteous as this organization and try to tarnish it,” said Christopher Bennett-Bey, grand sheikh of the group’s temple in Charlotte, N.C., one of more than 30 located around the country.
According to the group’s website, there are at least three temples in New Jersey, including one in Glassboro, Gloucester County, as well as Trenton and Newark.
That website carries a disclaimer that says the group does not support disobeying U.S. laws, and that “we are part and partial of the said government and must live the life accordingly.”
It is not clear why followers are claiming otherwise, but one expert said divisions dating back to the death of the sect’s founder have left small pockets of people claiming to be followers who have little understanding of the faith.
The bad filings include deeds, liens and other documents, often written in confusing pseudo-legal jargon and making outlandish claims about being exempt from U.S. law.
In some cases, filers have moved into foreclosed houses and changed the locks — as police say Bordley-Jackson EL did, even going as far as putting the utilities in her name.
Other times, people seeking to slip their mortgages have used bogus documents to waste the time and money of their banks. Fake liens also have been maliciously filed to target enemies.
“The ideas are particularly attractive to people who are hurting economically, although let’s be candid: for some people it’s just pure greed,” said Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala.
Moorish Science followers trace their faith back to 1913 and revere its founder, North Carolina native Timothy Drew, as a prophet. Followers called him Noble Drew Ali.
The faith blends aspects of Islam with elements of other faiths and philosophies, and originally taught that the people called blacks were actually the descendants of “Asiatic Moors” or Moroccans who had been in North America for hundreds of years.
To make an explicit link with their proclaimed Moorish heritage, members of the group added “Bey” or “El” to their names. At its height, tens of thousands of people belonged to the organization.
After Ali’s death in 1929, the group suffered a number of schisms and lost followers to groups that included the Nation of Islam. Today, numerous groups claim affiliation with Moorish Science.
“These are people who engage in the most bizarre leaps of logic. They literally believe that if you lowercase the ‘u’ in the phrase United States, you will break the bonds of government tyranny and become a free man,” Potok said.
The occupation of foreclosed homes appears to be a new wrinkle, Potok said. Such cases have been recorded in Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina, California and elsewhere. They often end in the arrests of the squatters.
“I don’t understand the underlying motive,” Bennett-Bey said. “I think it’s just out of convenience, or they’re looking for some status.”
Moorish leaders are looking into legal remedies, and Bennett-Bey has been advising authorities on how to distinguish registered members from imposters.
Kenny Martin-El, of Greensboro, N.C., contacted The Press of Atlantic City after Bordley-Jackson-El’s arrest was reported to explain his perspective on the issue. He said he knows the woman and that he believed she did nothing wrong, claiming a divine right by “registered Moors” to seize property.
“In truth, the Moors own this country,” he said by phone. “They own all of the land in this country. When something is available, we make an acquisition.”
Martin-El said few police are aware of his group, and Mullica Township police Capt. John Thompson said the latest incident was the first time he had heard of the religion.
In fact, it took the police, attorneys and county employees months to sort out the truth — all while another family already under contract to buy the home waited.
Eventually, police arrested the woman and charged her with theft by deception and forgery. She was being held in the Atlantic County Jail on $85,000 bail.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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