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.”
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.”