Patrick O’Neill’s RFRA Oral Argument

Good Morning Judge Wood – It is good to finally meet you; I had expected our first encounter would have been a year ago. Many of my dear friends are in court today as well as my wife, Mary, my son, Michael, my daughters, Bernadette, Annie and Mary Evelyn and my almost 1-year-old granddaughter, Theresa Grace. Can I have them stand so you can greet them?

Today is a very important day in the case of the Kings Bay Plowshares, and our hope is to share a lot of wisdom with you from the perspective of the seven of us and our defense team. I’m sure we are unique among the cases you have judged during your decade-plus career on the federal bench. We engaged in an action on April 4, 2018 in which our intention was not to get away with anything so to speak; we acted in an open and nonviolent way, and I recorded a lot of our actions on a portable camera so there would be no doubt as to our intentions that day.

We also stand at an important moment in history. Yesterday was the 74thanniversary of the United States atomic bombing of the Japanese city of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945 (with the atomic bombing of Nagasaki following three days later) killing tens of thousands of innocent people. These are the only two times nuclear weapons have been directly used on civilians, but the indirect use of these weapons happens every day. As my co-defendant Carmen Trotta noted in his previous testimony, if a person sticks a gun in the face of a bank teller, but doesn’t fire the gun, isn’t he still using that gun in an overt act of violence?

Often the argument of the U.S. Attorney in Plowshares cases is the defendants fail to demonstrate an imminent threat exists that must be met by high profile and dramatic actions such as ours. Last Friday, President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, leaving the United States and the world more vulnerable to the use of nuclear weapons. Indeed, it is the responsibility of people with sincerely held religious beliefs to respond to a government’s life threatening recklessness.

This court, confirmed in Magistrate Benjamin Cheesbro’s Report and Recommendation,determined that my actions – and the collective actions of all of us on April 4, 2018 – were taken as a direct result of our sincerely held religious beliefs, so we have met two very important elements of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Yet, the same court, in the same R&R, found that charging the seven of us with three felonies and a misdemeanor was the least restrictive means the government could use to sanction us.

Magistrate Cheesbro, despite testimony from Naval Station Kings Bay base commander, Capt. Brian Lepine that he had options other than arrest and full prosecution at his disposal to deter us, that these charges do in fact constitute least restrictive means. However, Lepine noted he could have given us a ban and bar letter, which would have trespassed the seven of us from the base for as long as he wished. While Capt Lepin testified that his prior use of the ban and bar letter had been a tried and true alternative to criminal prosecution, with a 100 percent success rate, still he did not consider such an option for the Kings Bay Plowshares.

In my testimony that day, I was asked if a ban and bar letter would have deterred me, and I responded: “on April 5th, if somebody had handed me a ban and bar letter, I would have hit I-95 as quickly as possible heading home …”

Perhaps the most important truth that underlies our April 4, 2018 action is that we came in Peace; our presence there was totally nonviolent. This is confirmed by the testimony last year by Scott Bassett, the Kings Bay public affairs officer, who said: “At no time was anybody threatened … there were no reported injuries … no military personnel or assets were in danger.” In addition, despite claims in Magistrate Cheesbro’s R&R that we engaged in dangerous activity, our actions at the missile shrine (aka: static missile display, which is a public gathering place) were observed for more than an hour by slowly passing Navy police cruisers, without intervention. This is also documented in video evidence provide by me from a head-mounted camera I wore at the base. Had we wanted to, the four of us at the shrine could have called a taxi and drove off.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act includes a condition the government not burden the faith practices of a person with sincerely held religious beliefs. My seven weeks in jail without the benefit of bond represented a major burden on my religious practice.

While the court determined that my actions were both “prophetic” and sacramental,” the court also took retaliatory measures that deprived me of participation in the sacraments of the Catholic Church – most importantly I was not permitted to attend Mass or to receive Holy Communion. My work as a Eucharistic Minister at WakeMed hospital in Raleigh was also brought to an abrupt stop, and there was certainly no quiet time in jail for contemplative prayer.

The government has also excessively burdened us all with severe pretrial constraints. Fr. Steve Kelly, 70, Elizabeth McAlister, 79 and Mark Colville have been incarcerated for 16 months in a miserable county jail (as a person intimately familiar with Southern jails,  I note I have yet to be held in a jail that honors the human dignity of those Jesus refers to as “the least of these.”) Four of us – myself included – have been tethered to the government by oppressive and often painful ankle monitors and cash bonds. I have now spent 14 months on both house arrest and a curfew that keeps me far from free.

The court’s criteria for burdening us (though we are still innocent of all charges), is because we represent a threat to community safety and because of our on-going criminal histories, yet speaking for myself, I have a felony conviction from 1984 (35 years ago), and the rest of my so-called “criminal history” consists of minor misdemeanor charges for standing in opposition to war, torture, the mistreatment of immigrants and for addressing other cases of grave injustices against the children of God.

All of my actions and those of my co-defendants have been measured and guided by the principles of nonviolence expressed in Sacred Scripture. I would argue our communal criminal history has been all about upholding the basic tenets of love and providing for the common good.

As I previously argued in our motion to dismiss the charges, for all intents and purposes the United States has ceased to be a democracy. All three branches of the federal government (Executive, Legislative and Judicial) have opted to collectively and unrelentingly support nuclear weapons and endless war. With close to 100 percent of our government speaking with one voice on war and violence, dissent is no longer part of the national conversation. A nation that offers no dissent is not a democracy… Rather, it is the Kings Bay Plowshares, in our small, yet dramatic way, who are at present holding the U.S. Government to some modest level of accountability, maintaining a check on the imbalance of power that has been silencing the voices of reason, and which quells the Divine Message: “Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek and pray for those who persecute you.”

Most of us have heard the passage from James: “Faith without works is dead.” (James 2:17)

Magistrate Cheesbro concluded the seven defendants are in fact religious actors with sincerely held beliefs. This indisputable conclusion includes an inseparable second component — the April 4 action itself. Magistrate Cheesbro’s conclusions are based on expert witness testimony, and the testimony of the seven actors. But the same court opts to ignore expert testimony when it is enfleshed (carried out) with the sacramental ritual (the action) chosen by the seven.

In the second chapter of the Book of James, this is clearly addressed when a needy person encounters one with means: “…If one of you tells him, ‘Go in peace; stay warm and well fed,’ but does not provide for his physical needs, what good is that? So too, faith by itself, if it is not complemented by action, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have deeds. Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.…'”

So, James concludes “Faith without works is dead,” but even more important is the fact that one’s belief is irrelevant if not combined with sacramental ritual (action.)

Magistrate Cheesbro wants to stop his analysis at my beliefs, but without sacramental ritual he only gets it half right. Yes, I have sincerely held religious beliefs, but if my beliefs include no practical substance, they mean nothing.

While Magistrate Cheesbro has accurately acknowledged the purity of my religious beliefs, he then plays God, and decides to judge my actions as spiritually invalid.

My actions are an extension of my beliefs. This connection between sincerely held religious beliefs and sacramental practice (action) are one and the same. When Magistrate Cheesbro attempts to separate belief from practice he is no longer looking at RFRA; he is ignoring the sacramental aspect of our actions, which cannot be torn away from belief.

In his report Magistrate Cheesboro clearly affirms our sincerely held religious beliefs were indeed sacramentalized by our nonviolent ritual at Naval Station Kings Bay. Yet, he also concludes that the government has used the least restrictive means to prevent us from engaging in our religious ritual.

Shouldn’t I be the one who decides such matters as to what constitutes my religious beliefs and actions as part of my personal relationship with God? The court has failed to comprehend the depths of and specificity of my sincerely held religious beliefs and practices.

It is also important to note the seven of us have practiced our religious beliefs nonviolently, which points to the overreach of the government charging defendants with three felonies for a nonviolent (quote) crime (unquote) of religious passion.

Yet, the sacramentality of location for us having to be on the base is a critical response to God’s call to put our faith into action. As Fr. Kelly noted in his testimony, he had to go to the actual location where the sinful behavior is being carried out to preach a Gospel of love, nonviolence and repentance.

The compelling interest I have to save the world from nuclear annihilation, which is not valued or affirmed in Magistrate Cheesbro’s report, is the most important component as to why we are here today at this moment in time. We brought a prophetic message to Naval Station Kings Bay, where sins are taking place. There are good people at Kings Bay, made in the image and likeness of a loving God, but they engage in bad practices that could result in the end of the human experiment. Trident is the opposite of God.

In conclusion, in this case, the government has never done that which it is required to do by law – to apply the standards of RFRA and conclude the seven of us, acting out of our sincerely held religious beliefs, are entitled to the least restrictive means so our prophetic and sacramental actions may be carried out without the government resorting to its most restrictive means of interference coupled with severe punitive reaction.

The Government, by Capt. Lepine’s own admission in the R&R, has noted it never considered the least restrictive means in our case, and if our charges are dismissed today, I will head to my family’s aged Toyoto Prius with my wife and children, and get out of town as fast as we can in case Judge Wood changes her mind.

Posted in