Religious Freedom Court Report
Here’s a longer summary of what happened in the court appearance Nov 19 which was the second and concluding part of the motion to dismiss according to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It was a day of powerful testimonies from the defendants but we have only partial quotes here. The transcript should be available soon where the full testimony will be seen.
BRUNSWICK, GA – The Kings Bay Plowshares evidentiary hearing regarding the Religious Freedom Restoration Act has concluded after a second full day of testimony November 19. Five of the seven defendants testified at the hearing on Monday. The activists are facing three felony charges and one misdemeanor charge with a possible 25 year sentence. They were arrested April 5 at Naval Station Kings Bay on the Florida border as part of their protest against Trident submarines and the D5 missiles they carry.
The seven Plowshares activists are asking the court to dismiss their charges because the government failed to offer them the least-restrictive means of resolving the charges against them.
Monday’s hearing was the conclusion of two days of testimony regarding the RFRA. The defendants explained their “deeply held religious beliefs,” and how their practice of their religion has been burdened by the government’s response to their actions. The RFRA requires the government to take claims of sincere religious exercise seriously.
Defendants Fr. Steven Kelly, S.J. and Clare Grady gave their testimony Nov. 7. In addition to the remaining five co-defendants testifying Nov. 19, the prosecution called its second of two witnesses, a civilian communications official for the base.
After the testimonies, Magistrate Judge Benjamin Cheesbro denied motions from several co-defendants requesting a lessening of their bond restrictions, including removal of ankle monitors for the five defendants who are released on bond. They challenged the government’s contention that the five are a “danger to community safety.” Kelly and Elizabeth McAlister remain incarcerated in the Glynn County Detention Center.
In their testimonies throughout the day several defendants noted that the Trident nuclear weapons are the greatest threat to all of God’s creation.
Elizabeth McAlister, from Baltimore, who turned 79 years old a few days ago while in jail, recounted her testimony for the trial for a 1983 Plowshares action in which she referenced a paper she and Elmer Mass had prepared, “The government has set up a religion of nuclearism. It is terrifying and dead, dead wrong. It is a form of idolatry in this culture, spoken about with a sense of awe. It’s a total contradiction to our faith. It puts trust in weapons, not trust in God.”
“God is our strength,” McAlister said, then quoting scripture: “Be still and know that I am God.”
Carmen Trotta, from the NY Catholic Worker, said that the government’s possession of nuclear weapons imposes a burden on all religious faith. He quoted the Catholic Church’s Vatican II documents:
“The arms race is a treacherous trap for humanity. Nations should mature to take care of one another. Nuclear weapons prevent us from having mutual cooperation with each other rather than mutual destruction.”
Patrick O’Neill, from Garner, NC Catholic Worker, said everyone in the courtroom had much more in common, that the defendants and the prosecution truly shared a compelling interest to prevent nuclear war.
“It is our universal burden,” he said. “We can’t separate our religion and our faith from our lives, they are the same thing. Our Catholic faith calls us to uphold the sanctity of life and to preserve creation.”
O’Neill said the real sin present at Naval Station Kings Bay are the Trident II D-5 nuclear missiles on the Ohio-class submarines for which the base serves as the home port.
Martha Hennessy, granddaughter of Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, spoke of the formation of her faith. Hennessy said early on she learned that nuclear weapons threaten all of God’s creation, and are directly opposed to her religious beliefs.
“I’m a grandmother, as a few of us are here,” Hennessy said. “I don’t care just for my children, but all the children in the world.”
Mark Colville, of New Haven, CT Catholic Worker, testified his faith forms the foundation of his conscience.
“It’s the rudder of the ship of my life,” he said. “The sins of omission interfere with my faith in God.”
Colville spoke of what the Plowshares were trying to do in community with an image former CIA officer turned political activist Ray McGovern visualized about the cathedral near the World War II concentration camp at Buchenwald.
“The incense of the ceremonial prayers within the church outside Buchenwald, rising upward to God as our prayers,” he said, “ and over the wall just beyond the smoke from the chimneys of the death camps, the ashes of our brothers and sisters rising upward… and the two streams of smoke mixing above. Whose prayers are being answered by God? Kings Bay Naval Base is labeled as a death camp for the entire world in the waiting.”
“What I’m charged with just seems so very petty compared to nuclear annihilation,” Colville said. “Yes, we went in the night and cut through the fence. We’re called to go into the darkness, to bring into light, to expose what is hidden.”
It is not known when Judge Cheesbro will make his ruling following this hearing. The parties have 20 days to file additional written arguments. If he rules against the defendants’ motion to dismiss a date will then be set for their trial.
The Plowshares movement began in the early 1980s and advocates active resistance to war usually involving symbolic protest and the damaging of weapons and military property. There have been about 100 Plowshares protests worldwide.
“The victory of the day,” said Patrick O’Neill after the hearing, “Was that truth was spoken by all defendants.”
“It is clear that is the threat.”
Video footage of earlier events and additional details on the court filings and legal updates are available on the Kings Bay Plowshares Facebook page and the website: