WASHINGTON — Seven defendants charged with a series of offenses for illegally entering a naval submarine base in Georgia to call for nuclear disarmament told a federal judge that their actions were motivated by their Catholic faith and not by their political beliefs.
The testimony Aug. 7 from the seven, who call themselves the Kings Bay Plowshares, in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia in Brunswick, focused on those beliefs and their protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
They told Judge Lisa Godbey Wood that a federal magistrate who presided at earlier court hearings erroneously denied pretrial motions to dismiss charges of conspiracy, trespass, and destruction and depredation of property.
The charges stemmed from an April 2018 protest at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia, one of two home ports for the U.S. Navy’s fleet of Trident submarines, which carry about half of the U.S. active strategic nuclear warheads.
The seven entered the base by cutting through a fence and spent more than two hours on the grounds, placing crime scene tape and spilling blood at different locales while posting an “indictment” charging the military with crimes against peace, citing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The defendants include longtime peace activists and several Catholic Workers.
They are Elizabeth McAlister of Jonah House in Baltimore and Jesuit Father Steve Kelly of the Bay Area in California, both of whom remain behind bars in Georgia; and Catholic Workers Carmen Trotta of New York City; Clare Grady of Ithaca, N.Y.; Martha Hennessy of New York, granddaughter of Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day; Mark Colville of New Haven, Conn.; and Patrick O’Neill of Garner, N.C.
Grady told Catholic News Service Aug. 8 from Georgia, where most members of the group were meeting to discuss next steps in the case, that she and the others welcomed the opportunity to meet face-to-face with the judge to explain their views.
“The government thinks they can judge how we practice our religious beliefs, how we exercise them. We’re saying you’ve granted us that we have firmly held religious beliefs, but you cannot tell us how or when we practice them. That’s our judgement, that’s our practice,” Grady said.
Trotta said Wood seemed interested in learning his and the others’ desire to act based on their conscience. “She allowed us to say what we wanted to say,” he said.
Hennessy explained that the hearing allowed the group to “bring more awareness to this problem of nuclear weapons.”
“The majority of the world really does want nuclear abolition,” she told CNS. “I know that and feel that and understand that. The forces of evil are in a great minority.”
The hearing, in a courtroom packed with supporters, including actor Martin Sheen, lasted for nearly four hours, with the prosecution and the defense allowed 90 minutes to present their case. Federal prosecutors testified for 30 minutes while the plowshares’ testimony last more than their allotted time, said attorney Bill Quigley, who represented McAlister.
“We spent our time talking about Catholic social teaching, and nuclear weapons and St. Thomas More and the pope, Catholic moral theology and the primacy of conscience,” Quigley told CNS. “It was a really great discussion.”
Wood gave both parties a week to file additional arguments in writing. After that she will decide if the charges will be dismissed or modified or whether a trial will be scheduled.