Hours of testimony and extensive pages of briefs and responses led to a 19-page order by U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood who, Monday, ruled against seven anti-nuclear peace activists who broke into Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in April 2018 in what they termed was a religious protest covered by federal law.
The Kings Bay action is one of a series of similar actions, dating back around 40 years, by the Plowshares movement. However, this is the first time a group of defendants used the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 as a defense to criminal charges.
“RFRA cannot be used as a defense to a criminal charge if the federal law at issue did not substantially burden the defendant’s exercise of religion,” Wood wrote. “Thus, a threshold inquiry is whether defendants can show that the federal laws at issue substantially burdened the exercise of their sincerely held beliefs.
“Notably, the beliefs and resulting actions that are at issue are those that gave rise to this action. In other words, the beliefs ay issue are those that defendants testified led them to their actions at Kings Bay on April 4th and 5th, 2018, and the actions at issue are the defendants’ actions at Kings Bay on that night.”
Like Magistrate Judge Benjamin Cheesbro, Wood acknowledges the beliefs expressed by the defendants are sincerely held. The question is the burden on expressing it. Multiple defendants testified over the course of the case that they needed to break into the base and conduct a symbolic denuclearization — what the government considers vandalism and property damage — to properly exercise their beliefs.
Wood also explains that the federal laws meant to prevent the defendants’ actions, the laws under which they’re being prosecuted, the laws do present a substantial burden, establishing a prima facie case for the defense under RFRA.
However, Wood goes on to describe how the federal government has a compelling interest at Kings Bay to maintain tight security over a submarine base known for being a location of nuclear weapons and other military assets.
Wood wrote, “Because non-application of the laws at issue to defendants for their actions at Kings Bay on April 4-5, 2018, would not have achieved the government’s desired goals of ensuring the safety of those on the base, the security of the assets housed there and the smooth operation of the base — and those operations elsewhere that rely on the smooth operations of the base — the government has met its burden of showing that the least-restrictive means of furthering its compelling interests in these circumstances is the application of the laws at issue to defendants for their actions….”
With denying of the motions to dismiss, the case now continues toward trial, which Tuesday was set for Oct. 21 at 9 a.m.