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No protection under the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act for protesters who damaged property at a U.S. Naval submarine base.

Clare Grady, Carmen Trotta, and Martha Hennessy are members of the Plowshares Movement, a Roman Catholic protest and activism group opposed to nuclear weapons.  On April 4, 2018, they and others surreptitiously and illegally entered the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in St. Marys, Georgia, to engage in protest of nuclear weapons by engaging in what they referred to as symbolic disarmament.  What they did was more destructive.  They spray painted numerous anti-nuclear and religious messages on the sidewalk and on monuments, poured donated blood from the movement’s members on the door of a building and the sidewalk, hammered on a decommissioned missile display, placed crime scene tape around the base, removed signage and part of a monument, and cut through wiring and fencing to enter a highly secured area and display banners protesting nuclear weapons.

They were apprehended by security and charged with various federal crimes including conspiracy, destruction of property on a naval installation, depredation of government property and trespass.  The three defendants filed motions to dismiss arguing their prosecution violated the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA).  Specifically, they asserted they held religious beliefs that nuclear weapons are immoral and illegal and the government’s prosecution of them substantially burdened their religious exercise, in violation of RFRA.  They argued that under the RFRA the government could not show that the decision to charge the defendants was the least-restrictive means of furthering is compelling interests in the safety and security of the base.  The defendants argued that less restrictive alternatives could have been used to achieve the government’s compelling interests.  Some of these alternatives they argued included not prosecuting and offering instead civil injunctions, civil damages, community service, and pretrial diversion.

While the trial judge found the defendants established a prima facie case under RFRA in that their actions were a sincere religious exercise.  But the district court found the government met its burden of demonstrating that it had a compelling interest in the safety, security and smooth operation of the naval base.  It found the government met its burden of establishing that the application of the laws in question to each of the defendants was the least restrictive means of furthering any one of the compelling government interests.

The court of appeals rejected their challenge and found no error by the district court.  The appeals court stated that the religious freedom protections of RFRA were not a “get out of jail free card” in that it does not shield persons from liability from a federal crime for breaking into secure naval installations and destroys government property regardless of the sincerity of their religious beliefs.  No Supreme Court case supports the destruction of government property or another person’s property on free exercise grounds.  So it is that nothing in the RFRA supports destructive and national security compromising conduct as a means of religious exercise.

The appeals court also upheld the trial court’s restitution order holding the three defendants jointly and severally liable for the full amount of restitution resulting from the destroyed or damaged property. The losses in question resulted from acts which were part of the conspiracy of which the three defendants were convicted.  The trial court did not abuse its discretion in holding the defendants jointly and severally liable for the full amount of restitution.


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