You may remember a bit of a kerfuffle in September of last year when Fort Bragg in North Carolina held the Rock the Fort event, an evangelical festival featuring Christian rock bands and speakers. The event was co-sponsored by the Billy Graham Association and had a stated mission to convert as many attendees as possible. The military brass at Fort Bragg not only approved and co-sponsored the festival as part of its Spiritual Fitness Initiative, but over $100,000 of your tax dollars were used to fund it.
At the time, church-state separation organizations protested, saying that the endorsement and support of the event was clearly a violation of the Establishment Clause. Lieutenant General Frank G. Helmick, commander of Fort Bragg, argued that it was not a problem because no soldiers would be forced or coerced into attending, and because the base would “would be willing and able to provide the same support to comparable events” as required by Department of Defense regulations. The event went ahead as planned.
Sgt. Justin Griffith, an atheist posted at the base, decided to take him at his word and organize a similar event in support of non-religious soldiers, free thought and secularism. Over a five month process, he and his team of volunteers managed to get a veritable who’s-who in the atheist world lined up as speakers and performers, including Richard Dawkins, Dan Barker, and Margaret Downey. He worked closely with base personnel in crafting his proposal, careful to ask for nothing more than was given to Rock the Fort organizers. Through the necessary officials and committees, the promise to provide the same support was repeated again and again, and as Griffith approached the final step, the approval of the base commander, he felt confident that his proposal would be approved with everything he asked for.
Lieutenant General Helmick is apparently not a man of his word, however, because he approved the event only under such restrictive conditions that it was impossible to move ahead. Compared to the tens of thousands of dollars given to Rock the Fort, Rock Beyond Belief was allotted absolutely nothing. While Rock the Fort was held in the expansive parade grounds, allowing for large numbers of attendees, information booths and family-friendly activity areas, Rock Beyond Belief was offered a much smaller indoor venue with a maximum capacity of just 700, too small the the expected turnout. And while the Christian event was officially sponsored and promoted, Helmick required that any materials for Rock Beyond Belief contain a disclaimer that the event was not supported by the military. With the expected funding having failed to materialize and without a suitable venue for the event, Griffith was forced to cancel Rock Beyond Belief at the last minute.
How anyone could see this as providing the same level of support is beyond me, so I can only assume the Helmick is being swayed by his personal prejudices rather than a sense of fairness or even his constitutional duty, especially considering he is going against the advice of his own legal department in this matter. This was a chance for the military to counter allegations that they engage in Christian proselytizing and are hostile to secular and non-religious soldiers. Instead, since the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) has offered to litigate on behalf of Rock Beyond Belief, they are going to end up in court, likely spending more of your tax dollars fighting legal battles than they would have if they had just approved the festival as requested.
What a waste.