Judge denies peace activists religious freedom defence

A group of US Catholic peace activists have failed to have charges dismissed for breaking into a nuclear submarine base in Georgia to protest nuclear weapons.

The base houses six Trident submarines, each designed to carry nearly 200 nuclear warheads.

The seven activists cited the Religion Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 federal law that says the US government may not burden the faith practices of a person with sincerely held religious beliefs.

This is the first time an attempt to use this defence has been tested.

The mostly middle-aged or elderly activists each face up to 25 years in prison for trespassing on the US Navy base.

They will stand trial on three felonies and one misdemeanor: destruction of property on a naval installation, depredation of government property, trespass and conspiracy.

While the judge said the activists were sincere in their religious faith and the government had burdened that religious faith by prosecuting them, she also found the government has a compelling interest in the safety of people working at the base and in the security of the nuclear weapons housed there.

She concluded the legal charges leveled against the activists were “the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling interests in these circumstances”.

The seven accused will face a jury trial next month.

In the events leading up to their arrest, the group (who are members of a 39-year-old anti-nuclear movement called Plowshares) cut a padlock and a security fence and entered the base.

Once on the base, The so-called “Kings Bay Plowshares 7” spilled blood on Navy wall insignia, spray-painted anti-war slogans on a walkway and banged on a monument to nuclear warfare using hammers made of melted-down guns.

Their goal, they said, was to symbolically disarm the weapons.

“The fight is going to be over how much of their faith can they testify to and what other kinds of evidence will the court allow the jury to hear,” said William P. Quigley, a law professor who is donating his time to help the accused argue their case.

“Traditionally, governments want to restrict the amount of evidence put on. They want to focus on the lock, the fence, the paint,” he said.

“The defendants want to put their actions into the context of their faith and in the context of what it says about nuclear weapons.”


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