MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
An intriguing story now that we read about today in The Washington Post: 28-year-old Lamont Butler lived briefly this winter in a mansion in Bethesda, Maryland. The house with 12 bedrooms and 6 kitchens was up for sale. Butler didn't own it. He simply walked in and lived there. But Butler says he wasn't breaking and entering. He claims the mansion was his because he's a Moorish American national, a sovereign citizen not subject to federal and state laws. He says he goes by the free national name Lamont Maurice El.
Similar cases of trespassing have cropped up around the country. It's part of a growing trend of Moorish, sovereign nationals claiming property and exemption from U.S. law. For more on this we turn to Spencer Dew, who teaches religious studies at the Centenary College of Louisiana. Professor Dew, welcome to the program.
SPENCER DEW: Thanks for having me.
BLOCK: And you have spent a lot of time studying this group. It was founded in the 1920s by a man who proclaimed himself a prophet. Noble Drew Ali founded the Moorish Science Temple of America. Originally, what was the thinking? Who were the Moorish Americans? What did they believe?
DEW: Well, the original argument was that folks who otherwise would be considered Negro or colored were in fact Moorish Americans, and therefore citizens of America just like the German-Americans or the Irish-Americans. There's an attempt to trace out a sacred history whereby these folks come over to America from Morocco, from North Africa. And before that, they're related to the ancient Canaanites and Moabites of the Bible.
BLOCK: And this would have preceded the Europeans in North America.
DEW: Yes, absolutely.
BLOCK: And is there a religious component to the group?
DEW: There is. For Prophet Noble Drew Ali, the language of Islam becomes particularly attractive. Again, this is a religion that's associated with Africa, associated with dark-skinned people. And it's also associated with social respectability and elite status.
BLOCK: Well, here in 2013, there seems to be a growing number of self-described Moorish Americans, claiming properties as their own, also defying the law by saying they don't need a driver's license, don't need a license plate or they don't have to pay taxes.
DEW: Right, right. So this is how I had first heard of Moorish Science still being a living religion. You know, I had assumed that nobody followed this religion anymore until about five years ago, teaching a class for the BA program at the Chicago Police Department, I had students, working cops who said, gee, this is a religion we see all the time and that somebody really needs to study because they would make traffic stops where folks would flash homemade passports and say we have diplomatic immunity. We are Moors, and therefore, we're not American citizens. We're not subject to your American laws.
BLOCK: And some would consider themselves, I gather, a sovereign nation.
DEW: Yes, absolutely. There have been cases of Moors claiming that they have seceded from the Union. There was woman in Connecticut who said my house is no longer part of the United States of America. It secedes.
BLOCK: Well, how does the original Moorish Science Temple of America view the Moorish Americans who say, you know, we are our own sovereigns, we are not going to obey the laws of this country?
DEW: Not well, I guess, is the best answer. It's widely considered that these folks who are claiming you can make your own passport, these folks are con artists, right? This is a fraudulent act. It's not going to work. And so in a lot of Moorish communities that are, in fact - I don't know the language to use exactly - respectable, law-abiding, they end up expending a lot of energy and a lot of concern over the fact that the name of their religion is being used to defraud others and make a lot of money for some questionable characters.
BLOCK: Well, Spencer Dew, thanks so much for taking with us.
DEW: Thank you for having me.
BLOCK: Spencer Dew is assistant professor of religious studies at the Centenary College of Louisiana in Shreveport. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.