Kings Bay nuclear protestors: Was this civil disobedience or a matter of religious liberty?

It’s hard to live in Oak Ridge, Tenn., without learning a thing or two about civil disobedience, especially demonstrations linked to nuclear weapons. No matter what goes on inside the Oak Ridge National Laboratory — in terms of energy, medicine, the digital future, etc. — this top-secret research facility will always be known for its role in America’s history of atomic bombs and beyond.

This leads to protests. Some of them cross the line into civil disobedience, which raises interesting historical, legal and even theological questions. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

There is a very similar story unfolding elsewhere in the Bible Belt, as seen in a recent report — “Judge denies nuclear protesters’ religious freedom defense” — from Religion News Service. Here is the overture:

(RNS) — A federal judge has denied a request by a group of Catholic peace activists to dismiss charges against them for breaking into a nuclear submarine base in Kings Bay, Georgia, last year to protest nuclear weapons.

The seven activists, individually and through their lawyers, used a novel defense, citing the Religion Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 federal law that says the government may not burden the faith practices of a person with sincerely held religious beliefs.

But Judge Lisa Godbey Wood, a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia, denied that defense and scheduled a jury trial for Oct. 21.

The activists, known as the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, face up to 25 years in prison each for trespassing on the U.S. Navy base, which houses six Trident submarines designed to carry nearly 200 nuclear warheads apiece. The seven, mostly middle-aged or elderly, will each stand trial on three felonies and one misdemeanor: destruction of property on a naval installation, depredation of government property, trespass and conspiracy.

Now, there are all kinds of questions I’d like to ask at this point.

First of all, I assume we are talking about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as opposed to the “Religion” Freedom Restoration Act that is mentioned here. RNS needs to make a correction.

But it would appear that the basic idea is that the protestors had a right to violate the law as an act of religious conscience. It would be interesting to know more the specifics of their claims. Normally, RFRA claims recognize the validity of a law (peyote is illegal) but then request a narrow exemption in a case directly linked to centuries of religious tradition and, specifically, acts of worship (peyote may be used only in specific, ancient Native American rites).

Think Masterpiece Cakeshop case: The owner offered to handle a gay couple’s reception and to sell them any of the cakes in his shop. He declined to create a new cake containing symbols and messages directly linked to a gay wedding rite.

So what was the narrow RFRA claim made in this Kings Bay case? What was the connection to worship and or ancient doctrines (the latter is more likely)?

Here’s an idea: Were the protestors saying that they had a unique and ancient rite to PRAY or WORSHIP at this scene of great evil? Perhaps perform an exorcism? Back to the RNS story:

In her denial, Wood concluded that the activists were sincere in their religious faith and that the government had burdened that religious faith by prosecuting them. 

But the judge found that the government has a compelling interest in the safety of the people working at the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base and in the security of the nuclear weapons housed there. Therefore, she found that the legal charges leveled against the activists were “the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling interests in these circumstances.” Her 19-page opinion denies all the defendants’ motions.

Yes, there is a bit more explicitly religious information at the end of the story:

The defendants are all residents of Catholic Worker houses, a collection of 200 independent houses across the country that feed and house the poor. They include a Jesuit priest, a former nun and a granddaughter of Dorothy Day, a co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement who is under consideration by the Catholic Church for canonization as a saint.

Now it will be up to the group to convince the court that the Plowshares group ought to be able to present experts who can testify about Catholic social teachings on nuclear weapons and why non-violent actions protesting nuclear weapons care consistent with their faith.

Ah, this was where I expected the story to mention the history and logical of protesters involved in deliberate acts of civil disobedience.

Normally, believers involved in civil disobedience state — right up front — that they know that their actions are illegal and, here is the hard part, they accept whatever punishments the state applies to their case. Here is a passage from a short academic summary of the principles at the heart of the thought of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi and others:

The first principle is that you maintain respect for the rule of law even while disobeying the specific law that you perceive as unjust.  Gandhi very much admired Socrates’ respect for Athenian law and his decision not to flee when his prison guards were bribed. King was always confident that American democracy would eventually treat his people as equal under the rule of law. …

The second principle of civil disobedience follows from the first: you should plead guilty to any violation of the law. As Gandhi explains: “I am here to … submit cheerfully to the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me for what in law is a deliberate crime and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen.” Gandhi instructed his disciples to take the penance of their oppressors upon themselves. Gandhi’s tactics were a form of moral and political ju jitzu. Some of Gandhi’s judges felt as if they were the ones charged and convicted. …

We have now arrived at the third principle of civil disobedience: you should attempt to convert your opponent by demonstrating the justice of your cause.  Active nonviolence does not seek, as Gandhi says, “to defeat or humiliate your opponents, but to win their friendship and understanding.”

So what is my journalism point here?

Simply this: The RNS story leaves me somewhat confused about the goals here. If this was a RFRA claim, there are facts readers need to now about the logic of that claim. If this was a case of honest civil disobedience, why were the Kings Bay seven stating that they were not guilty?

Either way, there is crucial information missing in this important story.

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