A Christian event tied to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association will take place Saturday at an army post in North Carolina despite protests from church-state separation groups.
Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick, the commander of the 18th Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg, assured protesters that the "Rock the Fort" event does not violate anybody's rights.
"I have taken steps to ensure that no soldier in my command is pressured in any way to attend this event," wrote Helmick in a letter to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist-agnostic group that opposed the event.
Helmick noted that the event occurs at an off-duty time for most soldiers at Fort Bragg and that the Constitution allows for the military to have chaplains and for the Corps to offer religious events to soldiers at the Installations.
In the letter, he also noted that the opportunity offered to the evangelical faith is open to all faiths.
Earlier this week, FFRF and Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) sent letters to Army officials protesting the Army-hosted, church-supported outreach event. They called for the event to be canceled, arguing that it violates the Constitution.
"It's not the Army's job to convert Americans to Christianity," contended the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "The Army has ... overstepped the constitutional line by sponsoring the event."
Although Charlotte-based BGEA has sponsored "Rock the Post" events at military bases across the nation, Saturday will be the first time the ministry has opened a military-hosted event to the public.
Saturday's "Rock the Fort" event is sponsored by BGEA and organized by Fort Bragg chaplains and some 20 local churches. On its website, the BGEA explained that many of the soldiers and their families stationed at Fort Bragg do not live on the post but in the surrounding area. Therefore, the ministry and chaplains decided to open the event up to the public so those not living on the grounds can attend.
Aside from being BGEA's first military-hosted event to be opened to the public, "Rock the Fort" will be the first to offer a kids program. According to BGEA, there is somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 children at Fort Bragg.
"There is a lot of stress in that particular area for school age children because of deployments," said Wanda McCurdy, the BGEA staff who will lead the children's event, according to the ministry. "Moms and Dads both are leaving to go overseas and children have to contend with everyday stuff, plus the fact that Mom or Dad is in Afghanistan or Iraq.
"That is why we felt it was important to offer something for the kids," she added, "to give them an opportunity to know that there's a safe place and a relationship you can count on to give you peace and security during tough times."
McCurdy also highlighted how many soldiers at Fort Bragg recently returned home and how the event may likely be the family's first outing in a long time.
Despite the explanation, FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor dismissed the event as an "out-of-control evangelism totally entangled with a military base."
As many as 10,000 people are expected to attend the "Rock the Fort" event at Fort Bragg. Evangelist Josh Holland will preach while Christian artists Hawk Nelson, Jason Crabb and God Rocks will provide musical entertainment.