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Little mercy for nuns


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These women posed quite a security threat. - COURTESY ERIC VERLO

Sister Barbara Huber, Sister Mary Ann Cunningham and friend Esther Kisamore, a Mennonite peace activist, fully admit to stepping over the line.

Well actually, Huber and Kisamore stepped over it. Cunningham rolled over it in her wheelchair.

It was Aug. 8, the day of the annual Sisters Witness Against War demonstration. About 50 people, including many a nun, were in front of the gate of Peterson Air Force Base, holding signs opposing war, chatting and praying. As the demonstration drew to a close, the three women decided to enter the base, in an effort to deliver a letter to Gen. Robert Kehler, commander of Air Force Space Command at Peterson.

That's when things turned awry.

Huber, a member of the Sisters of Charity and founder of Sisters Witness Against War, had written the letter to encourage the general to become a conscientious objector.

"For years I've been very clear that war is futile at least, and immoral at most," she says.

She had tried mail, then certified mail, and both had failed. So it was time to hand-deliver it, with Kisamore and Cunningham by her side.

The three seniors ignored warnings to halt, and were promptly removed and ticketed. This wasn't unprecedented; there have been other arrests for crossing the property line during past Sisters Witness Against War demonstrations. But the sisters felt these trespassing charges were uncalled for, largely because they weren't even allowed to go to the information booth, about 100 feet away from the gate.

"They were right on top of us before we ever got to the booth," Kisamore remembers.

The ladies decided not to take the charges sitting down. Lawyers Tom Barnes and Bill Durland (a peace activist who was at the demonstration) took up their defense.

But a traditional defense wasn't readily available, so Durland says he decided on a different argument: that the ladies were discriminated against based on their religious speech. He pointed out that others were allowed to go to the information booth. In fact, friends of the accused tried again to deliver the letter later, and weren't ticketed. Instead they were politely directed to a different gate, where they were allowed to enter.

Judge Robert Warren, however, was not friendly to the defense. On Dec. 3, at the jury orders hearing before the trial, Warren told defense attorneys that they couldn't present their discrimination defense, effectively canning any chance the ladies had of avoiding conviction at trial.

Durland was not amused by Warren's attitude.

"We knew he had a military background, and apparently he recognized me as one of the St. Patrick's Day Seven [one of seven peace marchers arrested at the 2007 St. Patrick's Day parade], because he even mentioned the St. Patrick's Day Seven," Durland says. "He was already preconditioned to act the way he did."

The city's prosecuting attorney, Katherine Spicer, says she wasn't sure what to think of the judge's actions. For her part, she viewed Durland's line of reasoning less a defense than an argument to have the case dismissed.

Ultimately, the three women pleaded no contest, and were sentenced to community service hardly a challenge for women that have made charity a lifestyle choice.


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