Back in September, Americans United urged Army officials to cancel an evangelistic event at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
AU said “Rock the Fort” targeted both service personnel and civilian families in the surrounding community for conversion to evangelical Christianity. Despite its clear religious nature, the rally and concert received the full backing of military brass, who helped advertise and fund the event to the tune of $54,500.
In a letter to Fort Bragg officials, our legal department asserted that it was not the job of the military to proselytize soldiers or civilians. In fact, we said the military’s participation in such a project was unconstitutional.
Despite our protest, military officials went ahead with the program. They said Rock the Fort was sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and that the military was just being supportive. They said they would do the same for any other comparable event.
That has apparently turned out to be an empty promise.
Late last week, the news media reported that a secularist event had to be canceled after Fort Bragg refused to provide the kind of support that was extended to the Christian rally.
Sgt. Justin Griffith had spent the past six months organizing “Rock Beyond Belief.” It was planned to include famed British scientist (and outspoken atheist) Richard Dawkins as its keynoter, as well as several other speakers and musical performers.
Just last month, Griffith was told that his event would receive the same level of support as Rock The Fort. But in a letter March 1 from Col. Stephen Sicinski, the promise evaporated.
Sicinski, the garrison commander, said Rock Beyond Belief was approved on the condition that it would be held in a smaller venue than Rock the Fort. He also insisted that any advertising must include a disclaimer asserting that the event was being put on without any support from Fort Bragg. He added that none of the expenses for Rock Beyond Belief would be paid for by the military.
Under these unfair conditions, Griffith had no choice but to cancel the secularist concert.
“It is with great personal cost and heartache that I must inform you that we are abandoning hope for the ‘similar level of support’ to the evangelical Christian event that [Lt. Gen. Frank G. Helmick] referenced in September,” Griffith wrote in a letter to Sicinski. “Despite your own legal staff’s recommendations to provide everything we asked for, we are not getting anything close to that.”
Griffith pointed out that Fort Bragg officially endorsed and co-sponsored the evangelical event, noting that every flyer, poster and media advertisement contained official Fort Bragg phone numbers. The press releases publicizing Rock the Fort were even on Fort Bragg letterhead, and publicity emails were sent by Fort Bragg officials.
“It is completely unreasonable to consider the demand to place a specific disclaimer that there is no endorsement for the non-religious themed Rock Beyond Belief event, and still claim that a similar level of support is given to us,” Griffith told Sicinski. In addition, Rock the Fort received financial subsidies that Sicinski made clear Rock Beyond Belief would not receive.
The obviously disparate treatment proves just what Americans United said from the start – Fort Bragg officials were acting unconstitutionally when they endorsed one religious perspective over all others in September.
The military has no business playing favorites in a country as religiously diverse as ours. By supporting only Christian-themed events, Fort Bragg officials have not only violated the Constitution, they have insulted the many soldiers of differing faith perspectives who are serving this country. It’s time for that to stop.
Our friends at the Military Religious Freedom Foundation are looking into the possibilities of a lawsuit. It sounds as though they have ample grounds.