ACLU vs Rock the Fort, evangelical event sponsored by US Army and Billy Graham Evangelical Association

The ACLU’s North Carolina Legal Foundation has been corresponding with Secretary of the Army, John McHugh about the recent Rock the Fort events that seem to violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The letter to Sec. McHugh can be viewed here and it contains a relevant letter from the Fort Bragg garrison Chaplain. Highlights include: [Emphasis mine]

ACLUAccording to a letter sent on Department of the Army letterhead by Chaplain Colonel David P. Hillis (see enclosed letter), this event was not an occasion at which Fort Bragg simply opened the base to an outside group to express the outside group’s individual ideas in a limited public forum. Rather, the Department of the Army itself was involved in sponsoring and planning this religious event.

It is our understanding that this event took place over the objections of several groups that were contacted by soldiers stationed at Fort Bragg, seeking assistance.

Further, it is no defense to argue that soldiers and their families were not coerced to participate in the event (although there appears to be evidence of coercion as well). Although coercion is “sufficient” to prove an Establishment Clause violation, it is “not necessary.” Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. at 604 (Blackmun, J., concurring)

It goes on to demand a Freedom of Information Act request that we are very interested in:

Consequently, we seek more information about the “Rock the Fort” event held at Fort Bragg on September 25, 2010. This letter constitutes a Request under the federal Freedom of Information Act… We seek the following:

All documents related to any funding sources for this event;
All correspondence to, from and between any official of the Department of the Army related to this event;
All documents related to Fort Bragg’s policy of opening the base to other outside groups for events;
All documents establishing Fort Bragg as any kind of public forum;
All policies and procedures related to the authority of military chaplains to coordinate, sponsor and promote overtly religious events; and
In addition to documents related to Fort Bragg’s policy of opening the base to other outside groups, all documents reflecting Fort Bragg’s actual practice of opening the base to outside groups over the last five (5) years – i.e., any documents reflecting actual visits by outside groups for events during that time period.

We will keep you informed on the FOIA request. For now, we would like to point towards one promising bit of information. The Secretary of the Army has responded, and you can read his statement here. Sec. McHugh has already distanced himself from prosecuting any further enforcement of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy (itself largely backed by religious ideology), and we look forward to a similar encouraging and progressive response to our event.

While I do not speak on behalf of the Army or the U.S. government in any fashion, I’d like to offer my personal opinion on the following statement from Sec. McHugh:

Given the information currently available, it appears that the event at Fort Bragg was planned and approved in accordance with applicable law and regulation. Further, it appears that the Fort Bragg Senior Commander took steps to ensure that no Soldier in his command was pressured in any way to attend the event.

So, why did I receive dozens of emails, flyers and verbal ‘notifications’ from many innappropriate sources? And why did you side-step the portion of the letter that specifically stated “Further, it is no defense to argue that soldiers and their families were not coerced to participate in the event (although there appears to be evidence of coercion as well). Although coercion is “sufficient” to prove an Establishment Clause violation, it is “not necessary.”?

The response is a bit of a mixed bag. There was a polite, respectful response from a very respectable high-ranking official. However, the questions asked above lead one to wonder if he even read the entire (3 page) letter sent to him. His main response seems to ignore the main question, although it is too early to tell how this will ultimately pan out. I have a lot of respect for the man’s wisdom and experience, and my optimism leads me to be hopeful for a shared understanding. We’ll keep you informed on any developments with this story.

In other news:

Check one, check two.
Ed Brayton has agreed to emcee Rock Beyond Belief. You likely know Ed best from his Dispatches From the Culture Wars ScienceBlog. You may not know that he is a former stand-up comic making a return to form with an irreverent set we will be bringing highlights of in the near future. He has cut his teeth on a lifelong public career defending the separation of church and state, the US Constitution, and accurate science. Thanks, Ed!

Check three
RBB will be interviewed on Wednesday night by Frostcall, a new podcast for new atheists/former Christians. A few weeks back, this podcast interviewed Leo Behe, 19 year old son of Michael Behe, who is known as the ‘father of Intelligent Design’ in some circles. Leo just came out to his father as an atheist, and has been banished from most contact with the family. I’m picturing a hellish imprisonment in an attic, but he paints a less hostile picture. Very interesting insights, you should check it out.

Promotion
I finally got promoted to the rank of SGT this month. This is a huge step for me, and I couldn’t have done it with out all of the support from my family, friends, and fellow soldiers. Thanks for everything! The pay raise comes just in time to take care of our first baby, Zoe Madalyn, due February 1st. 

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