Fort Bragg Officials May Put a Stop to Rock Beyond Belief March 3, 2011

Fort Bragg Officials May Put a Stop to Rock Beyond Belief

After all the buildup and preparation that had to happen to have a day-long festival to celebrate military atheists at Fort Bragg in North Carolina… after Richard Dawkins agreed to headline the event… after a similar (larger) event for Christians was approved by military officials… after all that, there’s a chance the event may not happen after all.

First, you need some background:

For the Christian “Rock the Fort” event cosponsored by Fort Bragg’s Religious Support Offive and the Billy Graham Evangelical Association, “at least $52,475 was directly spent on the evangelical event including for various meals, transportation, performers and presenters.”

(That’s your tax money, by the way.)

The event was held at the Main Post Parade Field, a large venue.

Fort Bragg officials were proud to sponsor that event.

When the Freedom From Religion Foundation suggested that the military was tearing down the wall between church and state, Staff Judge Advocate Lt. Col. Nelson Van Eck, Jr. wrote to them (PDF, emphasis mine) saying:

“With regards to support for future events comparable to the Rock the Fort event, Fort Bragg continues to be willing to provide the same level of support to comparable events proposed by non-federal entities.”

In addition:

Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick, the commanding officer at the time, wrote FFRF on Sept. 22: “[I] am willing to provide similar support to comparable events sponsored by similar non-Federal entities that address the needs of the Soldiers on this Installation.”

Well, that sounds all well and good. Time for Rock Beyond Belief to put their promise to the test, right?

But it seems the military is quickly backing away.

On Tuesday, Colonel Stephen J. Sicinski sent a letter (PDF) to RBB organizer Justin Griffith that shows anything but parity:

the venue for your event will be the Main Post Theater or the York Theater

As a reminder, all advertising materials should indicate by disclaimer that there is no endorsement by Fort Bragg, the US Army, or Department of Defense

Rock Beyond Belief will maintain responsibility for all expenses associated with performers and presenters, transportation, audio/visual support, and meals for associated performers and presenters.

So the venue is smaller.

There is no military endorsement of this atheist event — when there was plenty of endorsement at the Christian event.

And there will be no financial help, even though more than $50,000 was funneled to the Christians.

That’s how our country shows appreciation for Foxhole Atheists? Pathetic.

Today, FFRF responded with a letter of their own (PDF) to Judge Van Eck:

… Colonel Sicinski has made clear that Rock Beyond Belief will not receive the same support [as the Christian event]. This unequal treatment violates the Establishment Clause, Free Speech Clause, Equal Protection under the law, and DoD regulations. We request that you address this matter immediately. May we hear from you at your earliest convenience?

No response yet from Fort Bragg officials.

After the months of work that went into securing the initial funding needed to book speakers, and after FSM-knows-how-much paperwork, this event deserves to go on — with full military support.

It would be a travesty for Fort Bragg to take that away from Justin, the atheist soldiers and their family members, and all the guests who made plans to attend the event from around the country.

Let’s hope FFRF keeps the pressure on and this event is allowed to continue, with the same level of support and enthusiasm given to the Christian soldiers.

***Update 1***: Justin Griffith spoke to The Republic:

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Sgt. Justin Griffith, who announced the cancellation in a Thursday letter to Col. Stephen Sicinski, the garrison commander at Bragg. “I’m personally invested in this, both in money and time. And now I feel like I’ve strung people along.”

Griffith and other organizers say that changed abruptly this week, when they were told that they couldn’t have the large outdoor gathering with games and activities they had planned. Instead, they were told the event could take place at one of two indoor theaters, with the larger one accommodating about 700 people.

Mikey Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and a planned speaker for the event, said his group plans to file the lawsuit.

“We’re not going to negotiate our constitutional rights,” he said. “We’re going to federal court.”

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Nick Wallin

    I must say that the FFRF’s response was badass.

  • benjdm

    Here’s the posters and such for the Rock the Fort Event. I can’t find any disclaimers on them and have downloaded and saved them before they mysteriously ‘disappear’ or get changed.

  • benjdm

    Rock the Fort themselves claim to have gotten a little less than 4,000 attendees…I wonder how many Rock Beyond Belief can get?

  • Richard Wade

    So Fort Bragg is commanded by liars, hypocrites, bigots and cowards: They make promises they have no intention of keeping, they talk out of both sides of their mouths, they treat people with bald inequity, and they don’t have the courage of their primary conviction, the oath they swore to uphold the Constitution. They defile their uniforms simply by wearing them, with a stench much worse than if they crapped in them. For his duplicity, favoritism, and lack of honor, Sicinsky and his ilk are worthy of nothing but contempt, the puppets of fat, finger-wagging holy men.

  • Nate Mauger

    Here here, Richard Wade!

  • jenea

    What can we non-military taxpayers do to support the event? Who should we direct our emails and phone calls to?

  • chris

    Let’s Roll.

  • Richard P.

    I can see the introduction now.

    Hi My name is Lt. Col. Nelson Van Eck, Jr and I am a lying hypocrite.
    But that’s okay cuz I have Jesus and that makes it all okay.

  • Dan W

    What a bunch of lying hypocrites. MRFF has every right to file a lawsuit against these bigots. Maybe then they’ll get it into their thick heads that they can’t support one religious view over others.

  • Erik T

    Well quite frankly, I don’t want the military spending 50 grand on any festival. Just because they’ve now wasted that much on a christian event, I don’t see how it helps anything to make them spend an equally wasteful amount of money on a secular event.

  • flatlander100

    Richard P:

    Lt. Col. Van Eck has superiors. If I had to bet, I’d put my money on the Post’s official change of attitude and reneging on commitments having been ordered from higher up the chain of command.

    That said, is anyone really surprised that this happened? Really? I’m not.

  • CanadianNihilist

    I’m not surprised at all. Your country is full of religious maniacs. Apparently the military attracts them for some reason. Probably so they can hang out and Not kill, like the bible says.

  • JJR

    Granted, the closest I’ve ever been to military service were 4 years of high school JROTC and 1.5 years of collegiate ROTC, but this latest turn of events pisses me off on so many levels.

    Justin has NOTHING to apologize for or feel bad about…HE acted in good faith, he tried to play by the rules and make the command live up to its earlier promises. Hats off to this brave soldier for trying to strike a blow for equality for nonbelievers in uniform.

    MRFF should definitely sue the pants off DOD over this, and if FFRF wants to pile on, so much the merrier. Not as much fun as a Rock concert, but get your popcorn and watch the legal fireworks…

  • Defiantnonbeliever

    I’m all for cutting the budget for religious events to $0, I believe that is the law. If however $52k has been spent promoting religion justice would require compensation and repayment to taxpayers, and penalties for offenders.
    Contracts made with ‘Rock Beyond Belief’ need to be honored and full equity realized, until such time as the outrage of government endorsed religion is ended.

  • Ugh, this whole thing disgusts me. Hypocritical, lying bastards. I hope the courts eviscerate them.

  • Richard Wade

    I really admire Justin Griffith. He has matured into a courageous, determined, positive, and very decent young man. I hope this setback doesn’t cripple his spirit. He has much more to offer, many more good things to do in his life.


  • Claudia

    This is completely outrageous. It’s telling that these officials think they can blatantly treat people differently depending on their religion. So entrenched is their custom for special treatment of religion that they might not even realize how fucking bigoted they are being. Or if they do, they don’t care, because who gives a shit about those atheists anyway?

    Damn, bad way to start my day. I was so pumped about this event! Finally the atheists in foxholes were going to get some of the respect and attention they deserved. I shouldn’t be surprised I guess. I mean, you can’t have people knowing that we have nonreligious warriors who are just as brave and deserving as the religious ones.

    Hemant, please keep us updated about this and especially let us know if there’s anything we can do, including contributing monetarily to a legal fight.

  • Raborn

    As a former veteran, this sickens me. Honestly it should come as no surprise, but at the same time I just can’t stand this bullshit. This is essentially the reason I left as soon as I finished my contract; the bullshit of the people in charge is just too much to want to deal with anymore.

  • Nick

    As an ex-soldier who was stationed at Fort Bragg I’m honestly happy to see the event cancelled. The reaction to this will hopefully be fierce and (hopefully) result in some sort of DoD policy banning all religious events and (hopefully) invocations in the military. This sort of stuff is all too common in our Army and is among many reasons I chose not to continue serving my country.

  • Travis

    I’m kind of torn on this issue. Obviously the C.O. is a lying hypocritical bigot and the officials at Fort Bragg are really treading in some ethical mud. However, I can see the military officials justifying cutting support for this on the grounds that atheism is not a religion, which would make the event a secular gathering, therefore no violation of the establishment clause has occurred by them fully supporting a Christian event, and not this one.
    Yet I still think it’s quite unethical to fund a large social event for the Christians in the military, and completely dismiss the atheist soldiers and their families. I’ll be interested to see how the military responds to this situation.

  • Annie

    Hmmm. I must say, I was fired up and angry when I read this post, but then I went back and read the full letters you provided. Was the March 1st letter the first to confirm the event at Fort Bragg? If it indeed was, and nothing was promised beforehand, then I don’t think there is much to go on here. If, however, Rock Beyond Belief was already promised the larger venue and support, then this is an ethical issue. If it’s the latter, please let us know, as it is just plain wrong to promise an event planner one venue and then later swap it out for a smaller, less appealing one.

  • stogoe

    I can see the military officials justifying cutting support for this on the grounds that atheism is not a religion,

    Then you’re mistaken. The United States Supreme Court has already decided that atheism is a stance on/belief about religion and has the full protections under the Constitution and Bill of Rights that Christianity, Wicca, and Sufiism (et al) have.

  • There seems to be a bit of a mishmash of ideas here:

    1. FFRF initially suggests that the original concert may violate the establishment clause impacting constitutional rights. (concert=bad?)

    2. MRFF now suggests it has a constitutional right to a concert like the original concert. (concert=good?)

    3. FFRF now says that not having a similar concert might violate the establishment clause. (no concert=bad?)

    The notion that there shouldn’t be a religious concert (unless we get one too) becomes tougher to defend publicly. If religious concerts are ok if everyone gets one, does asking for one imply that atheism is a religion?

    If the argument is made that the atheist concert would be to support a social/cultural group of soldiers rather than a religious group then isn’t it possible that the argument could be made in future that christians can also be seen as a social/cultural group whose activities while using religious language aren’t necessarily religious (much as Dawkins talks about cultural christianity)?

    That could make a church service a violation, but a jesus concert a cultural event that doesn’t violate, much like a Bach concert isn’t automatically deemed a religious event.

    I think greater care needs to be taken in rushing to ask a court to rule something a violation of the constitution otherwise precedents are likely to be set that will hinder the growth and development of civil society.

    That said…I thought this was a great event, and would have loved to have attended. It would be great if other sponsors could be found or the issue with the military could be resolved. Regardless of the outcome, all those involved in organizing it should be proud of their efforts.

  • JB Tait

    Let us hope that Justin doesn’t suddenly find himself the recipient of a deployment and/or an “accident.”

  • Mackrelmint

    I’m with Annie on this one and I have to say that I’m confused as to why the funding and use of the parade grounds wasn’t confirmed before the advertisements were circulated.
    It seems like a rather large cart was put before the horse, unless I’m misunderstanding the situation as described.

  • Pete

    Nope…the whole event cancelled ITSELF. Typical militant-atheist martir-complex.

  • elricthemad

    I do love my country and have a deep gratitude and respect for all those who volunteer to serve, defend and possibly die for the defense of this country. That being said, i hope any young atheists out there considering enlisting would give serious thought as to whether or not they want to make such a sacrifice for a military and a government that cares so little for their beliefs. If the army wants so badly to continue the myth that there are no atheists in foxholes, maybe the atheists should stop getting in the foxholes. Just a thought.

  • Rich Wilson
  • Darrell Barker

    I’m a proud former US Marine. It used to be “Semper Fi” for me, but after this egregious attempt of muzzling atheists, from now on it’s; “Simplify”

  • Pastafarian

    This was apparently to be funded with MWR NAF – Non-appropriated funds – which means the bulk of the cost wouldn’t even come from taxpayers.

    And just today, a staff sergeant at Fort Eustis was reprimanded for punishing soldiers who refused to attend a similar religious concert there.

    The statements from Eustis should be thrown right back at the Bragg pukes – in court.

    Not real surprising, though; Bragg was the place that grew fanatic religious bigots like (thankfully retired) Lt. Gen. William “Jerry” Boykin, the shame of SFOD-D.

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