Kings Bay Plowshares Seven Update

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction…” Matthew 7:13


In September, I reported the case of the Kings Bay Plowshares Seven (KBP7), a group of veteran Catholic pacifist activists facing draconian punishment for ‘committing’ acts of symbolic disarmament at the Kings Bay naval base in Camden County, Georgia, home to America’s Atlantic fleet of nuclear-armed Trident submarines.

Kings Bay Plowshares Seven

Kings Bay Plowshares Seven

On April 4 this year – chosen as the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – the Seven cut perimeter fencing and spent (to their surprise) two hours hanging banners, placing crime-tape, spraying slogans, pouring vials of their own blood, leaving literature and denting (with a hammer made of melted guns) a monument honoring the ‘family’ of nuclear weapons housed at the base in the last four decades. For this non-violent enactment of the Prophet Isaiah’s injunction to “hammer swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks,” they were charged with one minor charge – trespass (six months maximum sentence) – and three major felonies – conspiracy, destruction of property and depredation of property (5-10 years each).

The KBP7 – Carmen Trotta (55), Mark Colville (55), Clare Grady (59), Patrick O’Neill (61), Martha Hennessy (62), Fr. Steve Kelly (69), Elizabeth McAlister (79) – were initially remanded in custody; at the time of my article, four remained incarcerated, now it’s down to two (Kelly and McAllister). If the US government gets its way, all will spend most of the rest of their lives behind bars.

On July 2, the Seven’s lawyers filed a motion to dismiss on grounds the case violated the defendants’ legitimate exercise of religious expression under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), requiring federal authorities to demonstrate both a ‘compelling interest’ in seeking convictions and maximum restraint in charges brought. Government lawyers, insisting the RFRA was not intended to validate blatant acts of vandalism, characterized the Seven as known trouble-makers, some with lengthy criminal records, professing a “religion of blood throwers, lock breakers, and spray painters.” On August 15, the Court in Glynn County, Georgia, requested a supplementary briefing from each side, as part of which (on September 26) the defendants submitted declarations identically pledging “to explain why I entered and symbolically disarmed the facility protecting, celebrating, and worshiping nuclear weapons at Kings Bay Trident Naval Base.”


On November 2, Judge Benjamin Cheesbro announced an evidentiary hearing would be held five days later to determine the merits of the motion: by which time, he had presumably read with care the extraordinary statements here all-too-briefly excerpted (available in full here):


Mark Colville

Mark Colville

Mark Colville: “Nuclearism in the United States (that ism the governing policies with regard to the building, possession and use of nuclear weapons) has become a compulsory religion, one that demands assent and allegiance, punishes non-participation, and above all requires a faith that is utterly incompatible with the teachings of the Bible.”


Clare Grady

Clare Grady

Clare Grady: “Our non-violent symbolic act of disarmament seeks to withdraw consent from the Trident weapons system, and the systems of theft and domination that the Trident enforces…We went in a spirit of VULNERABILITY, willing to trust in God, seeking His instruction, trusting in His power, willing to suffer, but not inflicting harm or ill will on anyone. Loving enough to clip the lock, to walk to the scene of what we believe to be the crime, to tell the truth that these weapons are idolatrous, criminal and bloody, and to use a simple hammer to transform the object and transform our lives.”


Martha Hennessy

Martha Hennessy

Martha Hennessey: “We have religious freedom laws put in place to protect peacemakers from being labelled vandals, criminals, or terrorists. I stepped through a narrow gate that the idolatrous secular world has created with the Kings Bay military base. … What was temporarily damaged on the base doesn’t compare to blasting whole modern cities and killing millions of people if or when the purpose and preparedness of the base is carried out.”


Steve Kelly

Steve Kelly

Fr. Stephen Kelly: “The religious witness of the Kings Bay Plowshares is a concerted effort, the seven of us having agreed to preach the Gospel, non-violently, where it had to be preached: in the locale of the greatest sin…If the testimony at this vestibule of omnicide was anything, it was religious. Ours was not an individual whim or esoteric act of fanatical origin. We were embodying the prophetic call given by God to Isaiah…as a way out of the sin that Dr. King identified in the triplets of evil: materialism, racism, and militarism.”


Elizabeth McAlister

Elizabeth McAlister

Elizabeth McAlister: “Being constantly ready to commit the nation and the planet to a war of annihilation within minutes for the sake of so-called national interests elevates these weapons over any belief in human dignity, any belief in the sanctity of human life, any belief in life itself, or any belief in God. This is idolatry. I, as a Catholic Christian, cannot bow down to these weapons.”


Patrick O'Neill

Patrick O’Neill

Patrick O’Neill: “The Government’s entire case – based on our signed religious documents and video recordings of our alleged ‘crimes’ – shows that we as a group focussed none of our efforts on trying to ‘get away with a crime.’ … By prosecuting the Kings Bay Plowshares – and saying nothing about the criminality of nuclear weapons – [the Government] has opted to crush dissent and maintain a status quo that puts the very fate of God’s creation in peril.”


Though the November 7 hearing lasted almost 10 hours – to be adjourned until November 19 – the judge heard from only two defendants, Clare Grady and Steve Kelly, “his jailhouse shackles clanking as he crossed to the witness stand.” The defense called two expert witnesses, Bishop Joseph Kopacz and theology professor Jeannine Hill Fletcher, to vouch for the legitimacy of the Seven’s actions in the court at least of Catholic opinion.

Professor Fletcher, arguing simply that “the maintenance of nuclear weapons is in direction violation” of Christ’s commandment to “love God and love your neighbor as yourself” – the law “the Catholic Christian tradition places above all others” – concluded by noting that Pope Francis, in his landmark 2017 “message on nuclear disarmament” condemned not just the use but possession of the Bomb, “lifted up the words of Pope John XXIII that the process of disarmament must be thoroughgoing and complete, and it must reach into our very souls.” And in this spirit:

Standing in solidarity with humanity, the Kings Bay Plowshares attempted to reach the very souls of fellow Catholics and Christians that we must ‘wake up’ to the threat to humanity and the affront to God that is our nuclear weapons arsenal through the sacramental action of sprinkling blood and inscribing the words ‘Love One Another.’

The only prosecution witness was Kings Bay commanding officer Captain Brian Levine – who, remarkably enough, in over two hours on the stand, refused to confirm the presence of nuclear weapons at the base. The Government, Levine insisted, “has a compelling interest to prevent unauthorized personnel from gaining access to the site,” an interest that can only be furthered by “prosecuting unauthorized personnel” with sufficient severity not just to penalize those caught but deter others.


On November 19, “Long before the sun” KBP7 supporter Anthony Donovan wrote on Facebook (04:30), four of the five defendants due to testify could “be found sitting in corners of a spacious house” in Brunswick, “centering themselves, reading notes, in quietude.” (The fifth, Elizabeth McAlister, was in her cell in the Glynn County Detention Center, two days after ‘celebrating’ her 79th birthday.) Then the four began “to gather in the hearth, the kitchen, readying to walk into the Court House to give their all. Every ounce.”

KINGS BAY, Ga. (April 5, 2011) Boatswain's Mate 1st Class Ted Marsh, mooring supervisor for the Trident Refit Facility, directs line handlers mooring the ballistic-missile submarine USS Alaska (SSBN 732) at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay. Alaska returned to homeport following a three-month patrol at sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber/Released)

Kings Bay, Ga. (April 5, 2011) Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Ted Marsh, mooring supervisor for the Trident Refit Facility, directs line handlers mooring the ballistic-missile submarine USS Alaska (SSBN 732) at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber/Released via Wikimedia Commons)

They sure did.

Trotta argued that the arms race is “a treacherous trap for humanity” and that “nations should mature to take care of one another.”

O’Neill argued that we can’t “separate our religion and our faith from our lives, they are the same thing,” for which reason God “calls us to uphold the sanctity of life and to preserve creation”;

Hennessey, citing the formidable legacy of her grandmother Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, stated simply, “I don’t care just for my children, but all the children in the world.”

Colville, who said his faith was “the rudder of the ship of my life,” described Kings Bay as “a death camp for the entire world in the waiting,” in which light “what I’m charged with just seems so very petty.”

For her part, McAlister, founding member of Catholic Plowshares in the early 1980s and widow of prominent pacifist Philip Berrigan, said that in placing “trust in weapons, not in God,” the “idolatry” of “nuclearism” is “terrifying and dead, dead wrong.”

There was one government witness, a “civilian communications official” unnamed in the only media account of the hearing. According to Wes Wolfe of The Brunswick News“remarks by the prosecution in the case thus far” have mainly addressed the curious argument “that anything less than criminal prosecution could not dissuade the defendants.” Curious not only because lengthy jail terms could make such ‘deterrence’ irrelevant, but “as noted by the criminal histories entered into evidence, the defendants are not strangers to being prosecuted, especially by federal authorities.”

As noted, however, the prosecution is also making the broader argument – one which has proven persuasive in similar cases – that even if the ‘vandalism’ in question is covered by the RFRA (which the government vehemently disputes), severe punishment can prevent similar offences, thus ‘compelling’ the government to override the RFRA in the greater national interest.

Judge Cheesbro, acceding to a defense request to allow “additional but limited briefing,” closed the session and will now recommend (at an unspecified date) whether to grant the motion to dismiss or set a date for a trial. The final decision will be up to District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood.

After the hearing, O’Neill told supporters: “The victory of the day was that the truth was spoken.” “It is clear,” he added, “that is the threat” the government fears most.



Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Canadian Pugwash. He may be reached here.