Fort Bragg Agrees To Allow Non-Theistic Festival On Base

Officials at Fort Bragg in North Carolina have agreed to allow an atheist soldier to hold a secularist music festival at an outdoor venue on the military installation, reversing an earlier decision that confined the event to a small, indoor auditorium.

Sgt. Justin Griffith sought permission to put on the event, called “Rock Beyond Belief,” after fort officials allowed the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to hold a proselytizing event called “Rock the Fort” in the fall of 2010. “Rock the Fort” was heavily promoted by Fort Bragg chaplains and received $50,000 in financial support and $30,000 in logistical and security support. (See “Army of God,” November 2010 Church & State.)

By contrast, Griffith originally received only grudging approval for his event. He was told the festival could take place at an indoor auditorium and that he had to make it clear that the fort had nothing to do with it.

Griffith said these conditions were unacceptable. He wanted to duplicate what the Graham group did – have an outdoor festival with bands, speakers and activities for children. Given the fort’s restrictive conditions, he turned down the offer.

Americans United, the North Carolina ACLU and the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief began investigating the matter. Using the Freedom of Information Act, the groups requested public documents and learned that the fort’s support of the Graham event violated the Army’s own regulations.

After studying the documents and doing additional research into military rules, the three groups determined that officials at Fort Bragg violated several Department of Defense regulations by supporting Rock the Fort.

In July, AU and the other groups asked U.S. Army leaders to ensure that officials at Fort Bragg don’t sponsor events that give selective benefits to religious groups.

In a letter sent to Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh and commanders at Fort Bragg, Americans United said the fort should never have supported the Graham event.

“Supporting an event designed to increase membership in Christian churches cannot be squared with [Army] regulations, much less with the First Amendment,” observed the letter. “Furthermore, based on the Army’s own admissions, it is clear that Fort Bragg officials engaged in substantial co-sponsorship and support of Rock the Fort – support that cannot plausibly be deemed ‘incidental.’”

The letter asked Army Secretary McHugh and other officials to ensure that the Army strictly adheres to constitutional mandates and rules barring selective benefits to religious organizations. It also asks that the military refrain from supporting any event that promotes religion and to provide proper training to personnel at Fort Bragg to ensure adherence to military regulations in making decisions about partnering with outside organizations.

It also asked the Army to provide a venue and support to Griffith’s “Rock Beyond Belief” event, to the extent that this can be done consistently with the Constitution.

Last month, officials at Fort Bragg relented and announced that they will allow “Rock Beyond Belief” to take place at a large outdoor venue called the Main Post Parade Field on March 31. The event, which will be open to the public, will feature bands, vendors and activities for children. The headline speaker will be Richard Dawkins, the famous Oxford University evolutionary biologist and author.