After spending the past 17 years protesting outside the gates of Vandenberg Air Force Base, one man’s life path of peaceful resistance has landed him and his family in the most powerful courtroom in the country.
Last month, Dennis Apel, his wife, Tensie, and the couple’s two children, Rozella, 14, and Thomas, 12, walked into the United States Supreme Court - the only case on the day’s docket was The United States of America vs. John Dennis Apel.
“It’s obviously an exciting thing,” Rozella said from the family’s home in Guadalupe — a more than 115-year-old Victorian that has no heating system or foundation.
“You don’t meet people who have gone to the Supreme Court, let alone your own dad. That just doesn’t happen very often. It feels pretty big.”
In the same breath, the bright-eyed teenager added her family’s trip to Capitol Hill was also a little sad because her dad won his last court battle with the government, prior to the ruling being appealed. At that time, the tight-knit family thought the fight was over. It wasn’t, by far.
“It wasn’t my idea to go to the Supreme Court,” Apel said. “It was the government’s. They took me. They say I’m a threat to national security, but, clearly I am not a threat to national security. I’m standing out there with a sign.”
The 63-year-old Apel was arrested 15 times in 15 months, beginning in 2010, while protesting outside the gates of Vandenberg. He has also received two “ban and bar” letters from the military base for what he calls “peaceful vigils.”
“A lot of people think we’re antimilitary, but we’re not antimilitary,” said Apel, a devout follower of the Catholic Worker movement.
“We are against the weaponization and militarization of space,” he added. “All of our wars are controlled from space.”
Apel’s second “ban and bar” letter — a formal notice of sorts that prevents receivers from protesting near military bases such as Vandenberg — was for the remainder of his life, however he continued standing outside the gates protesting what he deeply believes are the testing of “immoral weapons” on base.
The military grants the state and Santa Barbara County an easement to the portion of the highway where protesters gather. The protest zone was set up in the late 1980s as part of a settlement of a federal lawsuit.
“Right now, I still go out,” Apel said about the designated protest zone across from the main gate on Highway 1. “I have the legal right to go out there.”
The military, however, feels differently, and the base chose to prosecute Apel three times for trespassing when he violated his lifetime “ban and bar.” Federal law makes it a misdemeanor to re-enter a federal military installation after having been ordered not to come back.
Apel was convicted, appealed the ruling and prevailed at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which in essence said the military doesn’t maintain exclusive control of the land — the protest zone — and shares it with local authorities.
“It would have been nice if it ended there,” he said.
The saga didn’t end with the ruling in Apel’s favor, though. Instead, the solicitor general appealed the opinion to the highest court in the nation — the Supreme Court.
The Obama administration is eager to get the ruling taken off the books because it could affect similar arrangements at roughly three dozen bases in the nine western states covered by the San Francisco-based court.
“It’s going to affect everybody, not just this base,” Thomas chimed in about the justices’ upcoming ruling in his dad’s case.
Apel wasn’t required to attend the Supreme Court hearing, where his attorney, Erwin Chemerinsky, argued the man didn’t pose such a high risk to national security that he deserved to be stripped of his First Amendment rights on a public roadway. But, he did.
The soft-spoken, gentle-mannered man also took his family because the trip presented an “incredible opportunity” that couldn’t be passed up.
“It was a teachable moment,” Tensie said about the decision to bring the couple’s children, who are presently studying U.S. history in school.
Apel agreed, and said having his daughter and son sit in the court’s viewing area and visit Congresswoman Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, in her office, taught the youths lessons they wouldn’t have learned in the classroom.
“What better opportunity for them to witness the workings of the government,” Apel added.
Rozella and Thomas said they felt the nine justices, for the most part, weren’t performing at the top of their game, seemed rude, disinterested and possibly didn’t take the case as seriously as they believe it should be viewed. But, they still relish the once-in-a-lifetime journey.
“I got the insider’s view of the whole working (of the system),” Rozella said, adding the experience was a “perfect textbook view.”
Asked what he learned, Thomas smiled and replied, “A lot less fear ... of the whole system in Washington, D.C. It seems a lot smaller, and it’s way easier to understand.”
After returning to the Central Coast, the seventh-grader attempted to explain to his junior high science class why his family sat in on a Supreme Court hearing, but found he didn’t get much support from his classmates.
“I’m trying to explain to these kids ... and they all come home and play (Call of Duty) Black Ops (video games),” Thomas said.
The siblings have protested with their parents at Vandenberg and other military installations in the state since birth. As they’ve grown older, it has always been their choice whether to continue. To this day, they join their parents in protest, mostly of nuclear weapons.
“The First Amendment is what this country was originally made up of,” Thomas said. “Freedom of speech is the best kind (of protest) because it’s straight-up opinion being said nonviolently.”
Whether Apel’s fight to protect the right to free speech ends within the walls of the Supreme Court remains to be seen, but regardless of the court’s decision, he won’t stop saying what he believes. And he won’t stop teaching his children to do the same.
“The First Amendment is probably the most important of the Constitution to me, and not just because of our case,” Rozella said. “You should be able to speak your mind, no matter what your mind may be. We should all be able to agree on that.”
The Supreme Court could reinstate the ban, meaning Apel’s original conviction would be upheld and he’d be legally banned from attending any protests at Vandenberg. He’d also be required to pay fines. Yet, such a ruling would mean so much more to the man, who wanted to be a Franciscan priest as a youngster.
“It means the military would have authority (over civilians) that it hasn’t had in decades,” Apel said. “It would be chipping away at our First Amendment rights. It’s dangerous.”
The justices could also throw out the 9th Circuit’s ruling and still give the appeals court the chance to consider Apel’s First Amendment claims.
A ruling in Apel’s case is expected no later than June, but it could come as early as February.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.