RFRA Evidentiary Hearing
Father Bob Cushing and Bishop Joseph Kopacz outside of the Federal court in Brunswick, GA.
Religious Freedom Restoration Act Supplemental Briefs
On January 18, 2019, the Kings Bay Plowshares filed supplemental briefs with the US Federal Court in Brunswick, Georgia in response to U.S. Magistrate Judge Benjamin Cheesbro, who ordered the supplemental briefings after the Evidentiary Motions hearing back on November 28. Each defendant filed a common explanation as the first part of their filings, then arguments particular to each defendant in the second parts.
MOTION FOR EVIDENTIARY HEARING TO PROVIDE TESTIMONY ON DEFENDANT’S RELIGIOUS FREEDOM RESTORATION ACT DEFENSES
MEMORANDUM IN SUPPORT OF DEFENDANT’S MOTION FOR EVIDENTIARY HEARING TO PROVIDE TESTIMONY ON DEFENDANT’S RELIGIOUS FREEDOM RESTORATION ACT DEFENSES
Religious Freedom Restoration Act Evidentiary Hearing part 1
On November 7th the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 and around 35 supporters spent nearly 9 1/2 hours in Federal court in Brunswick, GA. It was the first day of a motions hearing to argue the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) . They contend that the three felony and one misdemeanor charges the seven face for their trespass into the Kings Bay Trident nuclear submarine base on April 4th are an unfairly excessive burden on their religious practice. They ask that the charges be dismissed or reduced. After 7pm Judge Benjamin Cheesbro adjourned the hearing to a future date which has now been set for November 19, at 9am.
Two expert witnesses testified on how prophetic and sacramental nonviolent disarmament actions at a nuclear weapons site, such as the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 action was, is in alignment with Catholic social teachings.
Jeannine Hill Fletcher, a Fordham University Theology Professor, reviewed Catholic social teachings from writings of Popes and the 2nd Vatican Council. After referring to Pacem in Terris and Gaudium et Spes which condemn the use of nuclear weapons, she pointed to Pope Francis’ statement in 2017 that “The threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned.” She also spoke about the primacy of conscience going back to the 13th century teachings of Thomas Aquinas. She noted that Pacem in Terris affirms that, “laws and decrees passed in contravention to the moral order, and hence of the divine will, can have no binding force in conscience.
Bishop Joseph Kopacz from Jackson, MS, also spoke to the primacy of conscience having led the 7 to extraordinary action fully consistent with Catholic teaching. The 1983 Peace Pastoral allowed for the possession of nuclear weapons for only a short time as a temporary step toward disarmament, but now after over 30 years nothing has happened. Actions, like the Plowshares “spiritual special ops team” have a chance of making change.
Jesuit Father Steve Kelly, his jailhouse shackles clanking as he crossed to the witness stand, testified that their action was religious, and constituted preaching the word of God that nuclear weapons are sinful. “This is very, very much a crisis, not only of existence,” he said of their message to base personnel, “but your souls are in danger.”
Codefendant Clare Grady emphasized that her action was “nonviolent symbolic disarmament.” She movingly told of her upbringing in a faithful and activist family informed by Catholic social teaching.
Captain Brian Lepine, Commander of Naval Station Kings Bay, testified for over two hours and repeatedly refused to acknowledge the existence of nuclear weapons on the Trident submarines at their homeport at Kings Bay.
Codefendants Mark Colville, Martha Hennessy, Carmen Trotta,
Patrick O’Neill, and Liz McAlister will testify at the next hearing on November 19, 2018.
Press Statement Prepared by Jeannine Hill Fletcher
On April 4, 2017, The Kings Bay Plowshares undertook a sacramental action to sound the prophetic call that is at the heart of the Christian Gospel: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and your neighbor as yourself. (Mark 12:30-31; Matthew 22:36-40; Luke 10:27). They placed themselves in Christ’s greatest directive of love: “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13)
After years of prayer and discernment, listening deeply to the call of conscience and the prophetic call of the Gospel, these courageous Catholics set forth to make sacred what had been profaned. As Catholics, we take seriously the message of the Bible that the earth and all its creatures are God’s (Psalm 24:1). But the chain-link fence of the Kings Bay Trident Naval Base stands as a visible sign that some among humanity claim that they can determine the future and fate of the earth and all its creatures. In prophetic and sacramental witness, the Kings Bay Plowshares cut through the false security of the chain-link fence to make present for all who have eyes to see, the false security of nuclear weapons. For it is God alone who has the power to give life and to take it away; and it is at the heart of the Catholic faith that God alone is our security. The Kings Bay Plowshares were compelled by their faith to undertake a sacramental action that would consecrate what had been desecrated, by the sprinkling of blood and the prophetic reminder of the heart of the Gospel, spray-painting the prophetic message: Love Thy Neighbor.
For this prophetic action, the Kings Bay Plowshares are being prosecuted for breaking the law. But, Doctor of the Church, Saint Thomas Aquinas made a crucial distinction between a just and an unjust law, on the basis of its origin and its end. A just law has as its end human good and “the law does not exceed the power of the lawgiver” (Summa Theologica, Part II, Question 96, Article 4). An unjust law, does not have as its end human good, and has been created by someone in such a way “that goes beyond the power committed to him.” A just law, aligned with the natural law of God, makes a demand on our human conscience. An unjust law, requires of our conscience that it not be followed. In Aquinas’s words, “Laws may be unjust through being opposed to the Divine good: such are the laws of tyrants inducing to idolatry, or to anything else contrary to the Divine law: and laws of this kind must nowise be observed, because, as stated in Acts 5:29, ‘we ought to obey God rather than man.’” Catholic Social Teaching maintains this distinction between just and unjust laws, as well as the role of conscience in determining the righteousness of law. In the words of Pope John XXIII in Pacem et Terris (1963): “laws and decrees passed in contravention of the moral order, and hence of the divine will, can have no binding force in conscience, since “it is right to obey God rather than men’.”
In accordance with the teaching of Jesus found in the New Testament, the Catholic Christian tradition places one law above all others: you shall love God and love your neighbor as yourself. The maintenance of nuclear warheads is in direct violation of this law.
Catholic Social Teaching has named nuclear weapons such as those housed at Kings Bay Naval Base as “offenses against humanity and the common good” (Holy See, “Nuclear Disarmament: Time for Abolition” (2014). The documents of Vatican II named the use of any weapons “aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities of extensive areas along with their population” as “a crime against God and [humanity]” that “merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.” (Gaudium et Spes, #80) In the words of Pope Francis “The threat of their use as well as their very possession is to be firmly condemned.” The principles of Catholic Social Teaching demand Catholics denounce unjust laws which compromise the dignity of each human person, destroy the common good, fail in our stewardship of the earth, global solidarity and the promotion of peace. Catholic Social Teaching has denounced nuclear weapons as contrary to the principles of the faith.
In his message on nuclear disarmament, Pope Francis lifted up the words of Pope John XXIII that the process of disarmament must be thoroughgoing and complete, and it must reach into our very souls. Standing in solidarity with humanity, the Kings Bay Plowshares attempted to reach the very souls of fellow Catholics and Christians that we must “wake up” to the threat to humanity and the affront to God that is our nuclear weapons arsenal through the sacramental action of sprinkling blood and inscribing the words “Love One Another.”
The defendants were motivated by deeply held religious beliefs and have acted in accordance with Catholic Social Teaching and the prophetic call of the Christian tradition.
Religious Freedom Restoration Act Evidentiary Hearing part 2
COURT HEARING NOVEMBER 19, 2018
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.”