In a day-long U.S. District Court hearing following briefing and supplemental briefing, the Kings Bay Plowshares defendants laid out their basis for claiming protection under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act for their actions in April at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay.
Under the cover of night — and freely admitted by the defendants — they traveled to the base where co-defendant and driver Father Stephen Kelly abandoned their vehicle. They proceeded to cut through part of the 23-mile perimeter fence, moved toward the nuclear weapons storage bunkers, cut through more fencing and concertina wire, then reached a part of the facility Kelly said Wednesday was lit up like a prison.
Kings Bay commanding officer Capt. Brian Lepine testified late Wednesday that the area with the bunkers has a loud public address system, that when triggered, alerts those in the area that they are not allowed to be there and that deadly force is authorized to deal with their presence.
Kelly testified earlier, “We could be plainly seen as older folks and not a threat,” and later added that the way they were dressed, it was clear they weren’t commandos. Regardless, as Kelly admitted, after a few members of the group put up posters and crime scene tape, spray-painted, spilled blood and tried to damage a decorative missile, armed Marines came at them from all directions. Lepine said that even with the amount of training of the security personnel, they were carrying loaded weapons on a sensitive military installation and sent out to deal with an unknown threat with unknown motivations, which put any number of people in danger.
The key here, from the perspective of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, is compelling interest. According to RFRA, if the government is to infringe on the religious rights of a person, the government has to show a compelling interest why that’s necessary.
Lepine addressed it in his testimony, but it’s also laid out in an affidavit filed with the court.
“Naval Submarine Kings Bay has a compelling interest to prevent unauthorized personnel from gaining access to the base,” Lepine stated. “Ensuring security of its facilities, assets and personnel that work and reside on base is vitally important. Any unauthorized personnel that access Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay may potentially endanger the safety of base personnel, the security of vital facilities and assets on base, and even their own safety.”
He goes on to state such activity also causes disruption and undermine’s the government’s ability to protect strategic national security interests, especially dealing with ballistic missile submarines, guided missile submarines and the Strategic Weapons Facility Atlantic.
That then gets to the second part of the government’s responsibility under RFRA, which is the least onerous punishment for violating the law while exercising sincerely held religious beliefs. The Justice Department feels the most appropriate action is to prosecute and if necessary, secure convictions on three felonies and a misdemeanor — conspiracy, destruction of property on a naval installation, depredation of government property and trespassing.
“Criminally prosecuting unauthorized personnel that unlawfully access the base is the least-restrictive means of furthering the government’s interest in limiting base access to authorized individuals and protecting government property and personnel from acts of destruction and depredation,” Lepine said in the affidavit.
Kelly freely testified that more than eight years of prison time hadn’t deterred him yet in similar actions, and neither would the present prosecution. However, he said he feels justified and authorized by his religion to act on ending nuclear weapons programs. Professor Jeannine Hill Fletcher, a theologian at Fordham University, said such deeply held Catholic beliefs on weapons of mass destruction go from Pope Francis on back to St. Thomas Aquinas of the 13th Century.
Francis said during a 2017 conference on nuclear disarmament at the Vatican that, “The threat of their use as well as their very possession is to be firmly condemned.”
Hill Fletcher said Aquinas maintained that a person’s conscience is not bound to unjust laws, which are human laws that do not have a foundation in eternal and natural law. The possession of nuclear weapons, when seen as thusly unjust, would provide provocation to the faithful to do something about that injustice. This also served as a philosophical underpinning for the actions most famously of the modern civil rights and women’s rights movements, along with a myriad others, including those of the defendants in this case.
Testimony in the hearing continued past press time Wednesday, and is set to resume at a time to be determined.