Marine Corps base rejects atheist festival

Marine Corps base rejects atheist festival January 4, 2013

Camp Pendleton’s decision to reject our proposal violates federal ethics regulations. This is certainly a huge step in the wrong direction. We’re still willing to work with officials before the San Diego area Marine Corps base is entrenched in a legal battle they can’t possibly win.

We’ve received mixed signals from Camp Pendleton in trying to organize Rock Beyond Belief 2. Initially, they were on board with treating us with equality. We are simply demanding the same access, treatment, and support as the Armor of Light ministry has received for over a decade. They’ve put on numerous massive evangelical festivals featuring rock bands and speakers, all intent on explaining why service members (and their families) need to drop their current religious preference and become born again Christians.

Then late last year something abruptly changed over at the Armor of Light website. They ‘went dark’, regarding public announcements of their events featuring command endorsement, sponsorship, or access to military bases. This was the entirety of their mission, so now they’ve got absolutely nothing to post to their ‘upcoming events’ calendar.

Here is a screenshot from this morning, 5 January 2013.

Armor of Light's calendar of events says: October TBA for Camp Pendleton

Right around the same time AoL went dark, American Atheists’ Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request had been processed. Look at the highlighted portions of this document [pdf] to see what was missing out of the information we requested. Half of what they did send us was improperly redacted beyond legibility. Even then, the contents constituted a tiny fraction of what we asked. No explanation was given.

Previously, the apparent full-stop in the special treatment for Armor of Light looked like a positive development. However, a few weeks ago, AoL and Camp Pendleton collaborated on a medium-sized event. Though not a full-blown concert, it had all the same hallmarks of the event we’re trying to put on.

USMC 511 Camp Pendleton Armor of Light

It featured a live music performance from at least one group (using relatively expensive pro-gear). There was face-painting, multiple ‘bounce houses’, balloon animals, and other activities aimed at children. There was food, and a very large building’s worth of seating arrangements (typically rented). Adults and kids sparred in padded sumo wrestler suits. This happened on Camp Pendleton with the full endorsement of a large tenant unit, and the use of government facilities, personnel, and equipment.

Ian Cherry, the same Camp Pendleton official who assured us equal treatment back in May, recently informed American Atheists that RBB2 couldn’t be supported. The reasons he gave were ridiculous, and we’re considering legal action shortly. The crux of their argument is that it would be ‘too costly’, despite the fact that American Atheists was ready and willing to pay for the event. Mr. Cherry also cited one other obstacle – they don’t have the manpower. It’s odd that Camp Pendleton has the manpower only when Armor of Light events are concerned.

They are bluffing and treating us like we’re idiots, but we aren’t just going away. Here’s why: what they are saying is ILLEGAL. These regulations couldn’t possibly be more clear:

Joint Ethics 3-211 Logistical support of Non Federal Entities - basically says they must be willing AND able to support comparable events.

Shall not support or appear to support religious or sectarian organizations.

They simply don’t have the option to tell us ‘No’ from a legal perspective.

Here’s how the funding piece works- In 2012, American Atheists paid for the first RBB (by way of a $50,000 donation from Stiefel Freethought Foundation) – mirroring the Billy Graham Evangelical Association’s spending for the event that prompted RBB. The Billy Graham Evangelical Association no longer does massive festivals on military bases for some mysterious reason. Sources for the funding regarding AoL activities at Camp Pendleton are still completely unknown. We have no idea if tax-payers footed a lot of the bill at Camp Pendleton, but we sure as hell intend to find out.

This Armor of Light ministry is not without embarrassing controversy. They fall under the Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa umbrella, an evangelical movement steeped in (failed) end-times predictions, and mired with a large number of sex abuse cover-up scandals. The center of this storm is right outside of San Diego. There is a lot of money and power funneled into the area by way of a 1000+ church sect (Calvary Chapel) with flagship CCCM at the head.

We backed off temporarily for a few reasons. Chiefly, we thought they might have re-evaluated their history of special treatment for Armor of Light ministries, putting a stop to it. Large scale festivals with sectarian nature (Christian, Jewish, Atheist, Wiccan, etc.) are specifically illegal on military bases – unless they are willing and able to support any other comparable event.

We’d gladly go away if they make a very firm written commitment to stop all of these sectarian concerts, festivals, and the other events from outside organizations. That would be the easiest way to enforce the laws, and is the recommended course of action in the actual regulations. Unfortunately, it’s apparent that they decided to fight against equal treatment, and for sectarian favoritism.

We ran into similar bluffs and tactics before. They didn’t work last time. We’re still hoping that Mr. Cherry is ready to talk about Rock Beyond Belief 2 as a festival, and not as a lawsuit.

It took 18 months to pull it off at Fort Bragg, and it was cutthroat the whole way. I’m proud to say that Colonel Sicinski and the rest of  Bragg’s leadership really came through on the right side of history, embracing us openly on the Main Post Parade Field. Camp Pendleton has nothing to fear and everything to gain by following the precedent we set last year.

It’s not over, by any means. We’ll likely resubmit our proposal and  spend all of two sentences specifically addressing their nonsensical objections. I’ve played this game before. We’ll be updating the official Rock Beyond Belief website shortly.

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  • Frances Porgal

    I do hope that you will continue to follow the outcome of the Armor of Light use of the base and if they do fight for equal access as you did at Ft Bragg. The reasons as stated by Camp Pendelton are just outright descrimination and it is great that we have organization such as yours to fight for the side of Atheists in the U. S.

    Rock on and keep up the good fight.

  • xenubarb

    Please use the email here and keep me in the loop. I’m about 30 minutes from Pendleton and a veteran who had to put a picture of Baphomet up to keep my new barracks mate in line.

    Raging Christian, she asked for a move to another room and got it, leaving me and Baphomet behind. The Dominion wasn’t as busy back in the 70s, but their influence was there.

    Back then, “No thanks” was respected, they weren’t aggressive about it. Maybe because I’m a little bit scary?


    I want in on this issue. Who the hell is this group?

    Armor of Light?


  • justin, does the organization have any backing from members of congress? it would seem that congressional members would love to back members of the military, even ones that don’t believe, and maybe they could “flex their muscles” with military brass to get rock beyond belief supported and off the ground. are there any sympathetic congresspersons on any of the military committees, maybe appropriations? this may be a more productive route in the end that filing law suits.

    • @Joe

      justin, does the organization have any backing from members of congress?

      To my knowledge, the AoL / CCCM aren’t relying on congress / politicians. It seems that they have been relying on their strong local San Diego area presence to bend the rules as the right high-ranks cycle through (absorbing them into their congregations while stationed there.) Then it just festered and got bigger and bigger. Nobody called them out, and there was nobody asking “is this legal?” a decade later.

      They’re MUCH more in bed with AoL / CCCM than Fort Bragg ever was regarding Billy Graham’s org. It’s not even close. This will be a one-inch putt of a court case if the wind blows that way. What I do have though, is experience. We got plenty of ‘rejections’ from Fort Bragg – especially in the first 6 months. I even canceled once because they ‘approved’ us but only to use a broom closet as a venue at the last minute (rather than an open field.) I see a chess board, they just see checkers.

  • Frances Porgal

    If only. In these times atheists need backing such as that suggested by Joe but currently I cannot think of anyone who would put their rear on the line what with the “primarying, etc: that is used by each of the parties. I hope someone else can come up with a name or conneciton where we might get some support

  • What happened to AoL’s facebook page?

    The only one I see is from Africa….

  • Explicit Atheist

    You may want to appeal the unsatisfactory FOIA response. OOSC has a FOIA Public Liaison who will help resolve disputes concerning the release of records or any other FOIA customer service concerns. You may contact their FOIA Public Liaison, Holly Salamido, at (202) 254-3600.

    The Office of Government Information Services,, takes requests for assistance regarding FOIA problems.

    You can file a FOIA lawsuit in the United States District Court most convenient to you, nearest the agency office where the records are kept or in the District of Columbia.

    A sample complaint letter is here:

    Also consider filing a “Motion for Vaughn Index” using the Sample Vaughn Motion: This is a formal request asking the court to order the government to give you an index describing the documents it is withholding and the justification it claims for withholding each piece of information.

    • @Explicit

      This is very good advice. I’ve got similar plans in mind. Trust me, we are not the only organization paying attention now. I’ll refrain from spilling specific legal strategies, but we don’t feel defeated as far as FOIA is concerned. (temporarily, perhaps)

  • Jane Frankel

    I am a civilian (and lifetime hippie). My father & all his friends served during Korea. I went to college in 1978 with the limping remnants of Vietnam soldiers. I have always supported our SOLDIERS, not their bosses. I respect those of you who join & stick with the military – i would not have lasted a single day myself.

    Adding to the respect I already have, I am THRILLED to see my fellow atheists standing up to the righteous bullies! Go MRFF! Every victory of your is a huge smile in my day!

  • schweinhundt

    My two cents, Justin: I always love to see folks take the equal access approach before the “don’t do/ban that” approach. Good luck with the struggle.

    • @schweinhundt – I don’t always follow this path, but when it comes to big stuff – I think it’s important. Not just for the ethical reasons (though that is the most important factor), I think it’s also a stronger legal case when couched with “we tried it the easy way.” Hope that’s not so blunt that it lowers your opinion of my intentions.

  • For the religious reich, nothing is too illegal, absurdly stupid, untrue, or evil for them to reject it as a way to force their beliefs upon everyone else.

  • schweinhundt

    Re: #11

    Not at all, Justin. Based on what you said, our viewpoints on the issue are probably at least 90% in-synch.

  • Explicit Atheist

    Re: #13

    That is also my view in general, and particularly with civil rights issues that potentially go to federal court. It is better to try every door on the first floor before going to the second poor even though it takes longer, even though we may have excellent reason to think we will fail at the lower level. The point of doing that is to build a stronger case so that when we get to the top floor we are better positioned to win, and paradoxically a track record of trying and losing is more likely to gain us than cost us our civil rights when we reach the upper levels. We need to take the long view and be persistent and patient.

  • jnorris

    I certainly am glad the USMC has better combat training than legal training.

  • Pam Ellis
  • rikitiki

    As a former Marine, I’m simply disgusted (though not surprised).

    I’d suggest somehow getting the word out to atheist Marines and

    former Marines and get an e-mail/letter writing campaign going

    to the commander at Pendelton – as well as to the Commandant

    of the Marine Corps.

  • It’s clear as day. The atheist festival must be allowed.

  • I will happily pay to beat them off