Atheists Protest Fort Bragg's Lack of Support for Event

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is protesting a decision by an army post in North Carolina not to provide the same support for an atheist event that it did for a Christian one last fall.

The "Rock Beyond Belief," scheduled to take place at Fort Bragg next month, is currently in limbo.

In a letter Thursday, FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott accused Colonel Stephen J. Sicinski of "serious constitutional violations" for denying what FFRF claims was promised support for the nonreligious event.

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Rock Beyond Belief is a free festival being organized by enlisted soldier Justin Griffith, a Christian-turned-atheist. Featured speakers for the April 2 event include famed atheist Richard Dawkins and FFRF's Dan Barker, among others. Organizers also brought on popular atheist musicians such as Roy Zimmerman.

It comes months after atheists protested the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's "Rock the Fort" festival, where nearly 4,000 people heard the gospel. It was organized by both the BGEA and Fort Bragg chaplains, along with some 20 local churches.

FFRF argued that by refusing to cancel the Christian evangelistic event, the military base set a precedent "which would now require it to offer the same support of a nonreligious event."

Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick, the commanding officer at the time, agreed. In a Sept. 22 letter, he said, "[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."

While Fort Bragg has agreed to allow the nonreligious event to be held, Griffith and the FFRF are protesting the different treatment they are receiving compared to the Rock the Fort organizers.

Namely, they are objecting Sicinski's decision not to allow the event to be held on the main post parade field on Fort Bragg, the same venue for Rock the Fort; the requirement to include a disclaimer in all advertising materials that there is no endorsement by Fort Bragg, the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense; and the lack of support for the event expenses.

FFRF contends that disclaimers were not required for the evangelical event and financial support of at least $52,000 was provided for the fall event as well.

The "unequal treatment," the group argues, violates the Establishment Clause, Free Speech Clause, Equal Protection under the law, and DoD regulations.

The atheists behind Rock Beyond Belief insist that their event is not just a counter-event to the Christian one. They maintain that they are not interested in putting on "an anti-Christian, anti-religious, or anti-anything event." Rather, the festival is just "a day of fun and entertainment for the rest of U.S."

September's Rock the Fort festival was organized to not only honor soldiers but to also "provide the highest quality of spiritual life for soldiers, families and civilians," according to Col. David Hillis, Fort Bragg Garrison Chaplain.

"It is our goal here at Fort Bragg, that we offer top quality religious programs and events that will assist soldiers and their families, retirees, and civilians to invigorate their faith, reinforce their spiritual resiliency and enhance their spiritual growth and faith development, especially during this time of high operational tempo and persistent conflict," he said, according to the BGEA.

Hillis added that Fort Bragg remains committed to the religious freedom of all soldiers.

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