Legal Update

Welcome to the Kings Bay Plowshares Legal Collective Page! Here we will provide updates on the legal process, legal documents that may be helpful to fellow travelers, and documents relating to the necessity defense and international law. Thanks for visiting!



5/28/2019 Update: Plowshares defendants object to magistrate’s recommendation

The Defendants response filed in federal court in Brunswick, GA on May 28, 2019

4/28/2019 UPDATE: Kings Bay Plowshares 7 Respond to U.S. Magistrate Cheesbro’s recommendation that our Motions to Dismiss be denied.


The Kings Bay Plowshares 7 defendants received word Friday evening that Magistrate Cheesbro of the Southern District Court of Georgia, recommended that their motions to dismiss the charges including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act argument be denied.  The seven defendants, all Catholics, had testified with expert witnesses during their November 2018 evidentiary hearings and waited fourteen weeks for the final decision.  There is still no trial date set. Their statement follows. 

“On April 4, 2018, we went onto the Kings Bay naval base, the largest nuclear submarine base in the world, to make real the prophet Isaiah’s command to beat swords into plowshares.   We were charged with three felonies and a misdemeanor which carry a maximum penalty of over 20 years in prison.

We immediately filed motions to dismiss the charges.  We argued in detail that all nuclear weapons are both immoral and illegal.   The commandment Thou Shall Not Kill applies to us individually and to our government.

On April 26, 2019, U.S. Magistrate Benjamin Cheesbro issued an 80 page report recommending our motions to dismiss be denied.   We now have 30 days to appeal his decision to US District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood.

In response to our use of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as a defense, the court found our cause is a legitimately religious one and that our faith is sincere. Magistrate Cheesbro concluded, however, that imprisoning us for up to 20 years is not a coercive response to our faith-based actions, but that even if it is, such imprisonment is the government’s least coercive response. Obviously all of us and thousands more have been praying and protesting outside of military bases.  We think when the government is prepared to launch weapons which can destroy all life on earth, we must do more.

We are already working on our appeal and look forward to appearing before Judge Wood.

We realize the struggle to rid the world of nuclear weapons is an uphill one.  We look forward to continuing to live our lives in a quest for peace and justice."


Legal Update 4/25/2019

The Kings Bay Plowshares continue to wait on a ruling from the US Magistrate on several motions to dismiss the charges.  

The biggest issue before the court is how the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) applies to the seven defendants.  There is no question all 7 are lifelong faith activists who acted consistent with their faith on issues of principle.  
Under RFRA the government is supposed to not infringe on people's faith based actions unless there is a compelling governmental interest to do so and the government acts on that interest in the least restrictive way possible.  If the government thinks they must do something to stop these people of faith from acting on their religious beliefs, the government has to do it in a way that places the least possible burden on religious freedom.  
So, the argument before the court is that these charges must be dismissed because the government never even looked at alternatives - like ban and bar letters or civil suits or just charging people with a misdemeanor.  Or, if not dismissed entirely, the charges should be drastically reduced.
RFRA has never been used as a defense in any Plowshares cases before and there are no previous cases exactly on point.  
Once the Magistrate rules, defendants have 30 days to appeal any adverse ruling to the US District Judge who will then make a final decision on those pretrial issues.  At that time, we expect a trial date will be set.  
As of now, Mark Colville, Steve Kelly, and Liz  McAlister remain in the Glynn County jail over a year after being arrested.  Clare Grady, Marth Hennessy, Patrick O'Neill and Carmen Trotta remain out on cash bonds, ankle monitors and restricted movement.


11/19/2018 Legal Update

LEGAL UPDATE November 19, 2018

 Since the last update on 9.26.18, there have been two pre-trial hearings in federal court to allow the Kings Bay Plowshares to put on evidence about why their religious beliefs led them to take their actions and why this prosecution should be dismissed.  One hearing was on November 7, 2018 and the second was on November 19, 2018.  

 The Kings Bay Plowshares asked the court to dismiss these prosecutions for several reasons.  Nuclear weapons are illegal under US law.  Nuclear weapons are illegal under US Treaty Law.  Nuclear weapons are illegal under international law.  And prosecuting peace activists for taking action based on their religious beliefs violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  

 The court heard arguments on the motion to dismiss and then asked for more briefing on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. 

 Additional briefs and affidavits on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act were submitted and are set out in the 9.26.18 legal update.  As part of those pleadings, the Kings Bay Plowshares asked for an opportunity to tell the court what their religious beliefs are and why those beliefs led them to symbolically disarm the nuclear weapons at Kings Bay.

 Two hearings resulted from that request, the first on November 7, 2018 and the second on November 19, 2018.   During those hearings each of the Kings Bay Plowshares took the stand and told the court why they took the actions they did.  The government put on a few witnesses as well arguing that there was no way the government could be expected to accommodate these actions by religious people.

 At this time, the US Magistrate has not ruled on the pre-trial motions.  Once the hearings are transcribed both the prosecution and defense will be given 20 days to submit short memos.  Then the Magistrate will issue his report and recommendations on the various motions to dismiss filed by the defendants. 

 After the Magistrate issues his report and recommendations, those will be sent to US District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood for her decision.  The Kings Bay Plowshares and the government will be given another opportunity to respond in writing and likely have oral argument on the pretrial motions to dismiss at that time.

 Complicating all this is the fact that there is a new US Magistrate presiding over preliminary matters in the Kings Bay Plowshares federal prosecution.  Benjamin Cheesbro replaced Stan Baker as Magistrate after Baker was nominated by President Trump and confirmed by the US Senate to become a new District Court Judge.  Baker presided over the bond hearings and the first argument on the motion to dismiss.  Cheesbro took over and presided over the last two hearings.

 Here are some observations by supporters of the Kings Bay Plowshares about how those hearings went.

 Court Hearing, November 7, 2018

On November 7, 2018, the Kings Bay Plowshares, 7 Catholic anti-nuclear weapons activists, their lawyers and over 30 supporters spent nearly 9 1/2 hours in federal court in Brunswick, GA.  This was the first day of a motion hearing to argue that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act applies to their case. They contend that the three felony and one misdemeanor charge the seven face for their entry onto and actions within the Kings Bay Trident nuclear submarine base on April 4 pose an excessive burden on their religious practice. They ask that the charges be dismissed or reduced. After 7pm with two expert witnesses for the defense and one for the prosecution and only two defendants having been able to testify, Magistrate Judge Benjamin Cheesbro adjourned the hearing to a future date.

 Two expert witnesses testified on Catholic social teaching about nuclear weapons.

 Jeannine Hill Fletcher, a Fordham Professor of Religion, reviewed Catholic teachings from writings of Popes and the second Vatican Council. After referring to Pacem in Terris and Gaudium et Spes which condemn the use of nuclear weapons, she pointed to Pope Francis' statement in 2017 that "The threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned." She also spoke about the primacy of conscience going back to the 13th century teachings of Thomas Aquinas. She noted that Pacem in Terris affirms that, "laws and decrees passed in contravention of the moral order, and hence of the divine will, can have no binding force in conscience.”  An extended version of her moving testimony can be found here:

 Bishop Joseph Kopacz from Jackson, MS, also spoke to the primacy of conscience having led the activists to extraordinary action as being fully consistent with Catholic teaching. The 1983 Peace Pastoral allowed for the possession of nuclear weapons for only a short time as a temporary step toward disarmament, but now after over 30 years nothing has happened. Actions, like the Plowshares "spiritual special ops team" have a chance of making change.

 Jesuit Father Steve Kelly, his jailhouse shackles clanking as he crossed to the witness stand, testified that their action was religious, and constituted preaching the word of God that nuclear weapons are sinful. "This is very, very much a crisis, not only of existence," he said of their message to base personnel, "but your souls are in danger." He noted he will have spent 100 months in prison, half in solitary confinement, by the time of his 70th birthday in January.

 Clare Grady emphasized that her action was "nonviolent symbolic disarmament". She movingly told of her upbringing in a faithful and activist family informed by Catholic social teaching. "My parents raised us with a sense of a loving, caring, compassionate God." She believes that the plowshares action was prophetic and sacramental with the potential to change themselves, the naval base and the world.

 Captain Brian Lepine, Commander of Naval Station Kings Bay, testified for over two hours for the prosecution and repeatedly refused to acknowledge the existence of nuclear weapons on the Trident submarines at their homeport at Kings Bay.

The court adjourned and resumed on November 19, 2018.

Court Hearing November 19, 2018

BRUNSWICK, GA – The Kings Bay Plowshares evidentiary hearing regarding the Religious Freedom Restoration Act has concluded after a second full day of testimony November 19.  Five of the seven defendants testified at the hearing on Monday.  The activists are facing three felony charges and one misdemeanor charge with a possible 25-year sentence.  They were arrested April 5 at Naval Station Kings Bay on the Florida border as part of their protest against Trident submarines and the D5 missiles they carry.

 The seven Plowshares activists are asking the court to dismiss their charges because the government failed to offer them the least-restrictive means of resolving the charges against them.

 Monday’s hearing was the conclusion of two days of testimony regarding the RFRA. The defendants explained their “deeply held religious beliefs,” and how their practice of their religion has been burdened by the government’s response to their actions. The RFRA requires the government to take claims of sincere religious exercise seriously.

 Defendants Fr. Steven Kelly, S.J. and Clare Grady gave their testimony Nov. 7.  In addition to the remaining five co-defendants testifying Nov. 19, the prosecution called its second of two witnesses, a civilian communications official for the base.

 After the testimonies, Magistrate Judge Benjamin Cheesbro denied motions from several co-defendants requesting a lessening of their bond restrictions, including removal of ankle monitors for the five defendants who are released on bond. They challenged the government’s contention that the five are a “danger to community safety.” Kelly and Elizabeth McAlister remain incarcerated in the Glynn County Detention Center.

 In their testimonies throughout the day several defendants noted that the Trident nuclear weapons are the greatest threat to all of God’s creation.

 Elizabeth McAlister, from Baltimore, who turned 79 years old a few days ago while in jail, recounted her testimony for the trial for a 1983 Plowshares action in which she referenced a paper she and Elmer Mass had prepared, “The government has set up a religion of nuclearism. It is terrifying and dead, dead wrong. It is a form of idolatry in this culture, spoken about with a sense of awe. It’s a total contradiction to our faith.  It puts trust in weapons, not trust in God.”  

 “God is our strength,” McAlister said, then quoting scripture: “Be still and know that I am God.”

 Carmen Trotta, from the NY Catholic Worker, said that the government’s possession of nuclear weapons imposes a burden on all religious faith. He quoted the Catholic Church’s Vatican II documents: “The arms race is a treacherous trap for humanity. Nations should mature to take care of one another. Nuclear weapons prevent us from having mutual cooperation with each other rather than mutual destruction.”

 Patrick O’Neill, from Garner, NC Catholic Worker, said everyone in the courtroom had much more in common, that the defendants and the prosecution truly shared a compelling interest to prevent nuclear war. “It is our universal burden,” he said. “We can’t separate our religion and our faith from our lives, they are the same thing. Our Catholic faith calls us to uphold the sanctity of life and to preserve creation.”

O’Neill said the real sin present at Naval Station Kings Bay are the Trident II D-5 nuclear missiles on the Ohio-class submarines for which the base serves as the home port.

 Martha Hennessy, granddaughter of Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, spoke of the formation of her faith. Hennessy said early on she learned that nuclear weapons threaten all of God’s creation, and are directly opposed to her religious beliefs. “I’m a grandmother, as a few of us are here,” Hennessy said. “I don’t care just for my children, but all the children in the world.”

 Mark Colville, of New Haven, CT Catholic Worker, testified his faith forms the foundation of his conscience. “It’s the rudder of the ship of my life,” he said. “The sins of omission interfere with my faith in God.”  Colville spoke of what the Plowshares were trying to do in community with an image former CIA officer turned political activist Ray McGovern visualized about the cathedral near the World War II concentration camp at Buchenwald.  “The incense of the ceremonial prayers within the church outside Buchenwald, rising upward to God as our prayers,” he said, “and over the wall just beyond the smoke from the chimneys of the death camps, the ashes of our brothers and sisters rising upward… and the two streams of smoke mixing above. Whose prayers are being answered by God? Kings Bay Naval Base is labeled as a death camp for the entire world in the waiting.”

 “What I’m charged with just seems so very petty compared to nuclear annihilation,” Colville said. “Yes, we went in the night and cut through the fence. We’re called to go into the darkness, to bring into light, to expose what is hidden.”

 It is not known when Judge Cheesbro will make his ruling following this hearing. The parties have 20 days to file additional written arguments. If he rules against the defendants’ motion to dismiss a date will then be set for their trial.

 The Plowshares movement began in the early 1980s and advocates active resistance to war usually involving symbolic protest and the damaging of weapons and military property. There have been about 100 Plowshares protests worldwide.

 “The victory of the day,” said Patrick O’Neill after the hearing, “Was that truth was spoken by all defendants.” “It is clear that is the threat.”

 #swordsintoplowshares   #disarmtrident


9/26/2018 Legal UPdate

Attorneys for the seven Kings Bay Plowshares defendants today filed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act Memo in federal court in Brunswick, GA, as their response to the court's request for supplemental briefings that would justify the defendants' use of  the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in their defense. The RFRA requires the government to prove a compelling state interest if it acts to restrict a person's free exercise of his or her religious beliefs. The defendants will also ask the court to hold a hearing to allow them to testify about their faith-based opposition to nuclear weapons.

The Memo points out that “Under RFRA the law is clear, and the relevant facts in this case are also clear. The defendants exercised their sincerely held Catholic beliefs by symbolically disarming nuclear weapons.  The government is substantially burdening the defendants’ exercise of those same beliefs by seeking to enforce, through criminal prosecution, federal statutes that prohibit trespass and protect property ('trespass and property statutes'). Under RFRA, this places a heavy burden of justification on the government, which the government here fails to satisfy.”

 Along with the RFRA Memo, an affidavit from each of the defendants was also filed with the court. In the affidavits, the defendants speak about their sincerely-held religious beliefs and how these beliefs motivated their nonviolent acts of prophetic witness against the government’s possession of nuclear weapons, and the use of such weapons to threaten people, nations and all life.

To quote from the Memo: “The defendants’ symbolic actions of disarmament are within the tradition of a long history of similar actions carried out by Plowshares activists who take their name from the Christian Bible verse, Isaiah 2:4: “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.“

The Kings Bay Naval Station is home to at least six ballistic missile submarines. Each submarine carries 20 Trident II D5 MIRV thermonuclear missiles. Each of these missiles carries four or more individual nuclear warheads ranging in destructive power from 100 kilotons to 475 kilotons. To understand the massive destructive power of these weapons, remember that the nuclear bomb which destroyed the Japanese city of  Hiroshima had an explosive power of only15 kilotons.


Declaration of Mark Colville

Declaration of Clare Grady

Declaration of Martha Hennessy

Declaration of Stephen Kelly SJ

Declaration of Elizabeth McAlister

Declaration of Patrick O’Neill

Declaration of Carmen Trotta




7/2/2018 Legal Update

 Today attorneys filed Motions to Dismiss all criminal charges against the Kings Bay Plowshares in federal court in Brunswick, GA.  The seven Catholic defendants are charged with three federal felonies and one misdemeanor for their actions in going onto the Naval Base at Kings Bay Georgia and symbolically disarming the massive amount of nuclear weapons at that base. 

The request to dismiss ends the supporting memorandum with the following paragraph: “If the defendants took their actions in North Korea or Iran, the US government would hail their actions.  The same US government cannot be allowed to criminally prosecute them at home.  The charges should be dismissed.”

The Motion to Dismiss all charges argues several points.  First,any use or threat of use of nuclear weapons of mass destruction are illegal under US law, thus disarming these illegal weapons of mass destruction cannot be illegal.  Second, international law, a part of US law, also makes any use or threat of use of these weapons of mass destruction illegal.  Third, the actions of the individuals charged were taken due to their belief as Catholics that nuclear weapons are both immoral and illegal and in prosecuting them the government is violating the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  Fourth, the current President of the United States has repeatedly threatened to use nuclear weapons and his illegal conduct has not been prosecuted, so the decision of the government to only prosecute those who protest against nuclear weapons is illegal selective prosecution.

The Motion to Dismiss is supplemented by four important declarations, available in full below.

Professor Francis Boyle, a renowned Harvard Law graduate and professor of law at the  Illinois College of Law, advised the court that nuclear weapons are flatly illegal and the actions of defendants are in full compliance with the law.

Captain Thomas Rogers, a retired career Navy commander of nuclear armed submarines, told the court that nuclear weapons violate the principles of the laws of war and are both illegal and immoral.

Catholic Bishop Thomas Gumbleton declared that the actions of the Kings Bay Plowshares are totally consistent with and supported by Catholic social teaching that any use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is totally immoral.

Jeffery Carter, Executive Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, explained to the court the fact that his organization and the American Medical Association condemn any use of nuclear weapons because of the horrific impact upon millions, perhaps even billions, of people. 

The Kings Bay Naval Station is home to at least 6 nuclear ballistic missile submarines.  Each submarine carries 20 Trident II D 5 MIRV thermonuclear weapons.   Each of these individual Trident thermonuclear weapons contains four or more individual nuclear weapons ranging in destructive power from a 100 kilotons to 475 kilotons.  To understand the massive destructive power of these weapons remember that the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima was a 15 kiloton bomb. 



Draft Declaration of Professor Francis Boyle

Declaration of  Bishop Thomas Gumbleton

Declaration of  Captain Thomas Rogers

Declaration of Jeffrey Carter


5/25/2018 Legal Update

Thank you for supporting the Kings Bay Plowshares. As many of you know, the trial and jail witness are a powerful and important part of the work for nuclear disarmament. Here is where the Kings Bay Plowshare are now in that process.

In early May, the Kings Bay Plowshares were indicted in the Southern District of Georgia, Brunswick division. The seven were charged with four counts: Conspiracy, Destruction of Property on a Naval Station, Depredation of Government Property, and Trespass. 

Conspiracy, Destruction of Property on a Naval Station, Depredation of Government Property, and Trespass.  On May 17, 2018, the seven were arraigned and pled not guilty. Magistrate R. Stan Baker presided. A motions hearing was set for early August 3rd (tentative).

At the May 17th court date, bond was set for six of the seven. Steve Kelly SJ was not offered bond due to a pending case at the naval submarine base in Washington State. Conditions of release required that each of the six post a $50,000 surety with $5,000 cash paid ($1,000 for Carmen Trotta). As well, the court required that they wear ankle monitors, be subject to home confinement, and surrender their passports. Martha Hennessy, Carmen Trotta, and Patrick O’Neill chose to accept these conditions and bond out in hopes of being able to continue the work of organizing for nuclear disarmament from their home communities as they await trial. Liz McAlister, Clare Grady, and Mark Colville elected to continue writing, praying, and organizing from within the Glynn County Jail in Brunswick, Georgia. On May 24th, Martha, Carmen, and Patrick were released from Glynn County, traveled home, and began their home confinement.

Currently, Liz McAlister is represented by attorneys Bill Quigley and Jason Clark (local sponsor) Martha Hennessy is represented by attorneys Anna Lellelid and Jason Clark (local sponsor), Clare Grady is represented by Stephanie McDonald. Attorney Matt D’Aloisio will be standby counsel for Mark Colville, who will be representing himself. Patrick O’Neill will be representing himself with Darrel Gossett as standby counsel. Steve Kelly and Carmen Trotta are representing themselves. Other attorneys are helping in various capacities as well.

A motions hearing has been set for August 3rd (tentative). At that hearing the seven and their attorneys and, on the opposing side, the prosecution, will argue motions related to the trial.

Around the time of that hearing, the legal team expects that the timing of the trial will become clearer. As soon as a trial date is announced, the legal team will share that news with supporters.


5/4/18 Indictment Filed by Federal Government

In an indictment filed this week in the Southern District of Georgia, Brunswick division, the seven were charged with four counts: Conspiracy, Destruction of Property on a Naval Station, Depredation of Government Property, and Trespass. They will appear before a magistrate in Brunswick on May 10th.  Although currently being held at the Camden County jail in Woodbine, Georgia, they expect to be acquitted of all charges. Attorney William P. Quigley, Professor of Law at Loyola University, New Orleans, LA, noted, “These peace activists acted in accordance with the 1996 declaration of the International Court of Justice that any threat or use of nuclear weapons is illegal.” 

To view the indictment click here: Federal Indictment