Here’s some good news out of North Carolina: Officials at Fort Bragg have agreed to allow non-religious soldiers to sponsor a festival next year called “Rock Beyond Belief.” Army officials will give the festival’s organizers an appropriate outdoor venue and make it possible for them to promote the event on base and off.
Many of you might recall the flap that erupted at Fort Bragg last year after the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association held an event on base called “Rock the Fort.” Chaplains at the fort heavily promoted the evangelistic rally and concert to people living on base and in the surrounding community – even though it was clearly proselytizing in nature.
Americans United learned about “Rock the Fort” just days before it was scheduled to occur. Although we were unable to get officials at the fort to cancel it, we did advise them that they were making a mistake. The Graham organization, we argued, should seek converts on its own time with its own resources and not rely on the military for help.
In response, military officials insisted that they would allow the same right of access for a non-Christian event. Yet when Sgt. Justin Griffith submitted paperwork for “Rock Beyond Belief,” he was given only grudging approval. Griffith was told the event could take place at an indoor auditorium and that he had to make it clear that the fort had nothing to do with the event.
This was not Griffith’s original vision. He wanted to duplicate what the Graham group did – have an outdoor festival with bands, speakers and activities for children. Reluctantly, he turned down the fort’s offer, finding the conditions unacceptable.
Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union started doing some digging. Using the Freedom of Information Act, we requested public documents and learned some interesting things – mainly, that the fort’s support of the Graham event violated the Army’s own regulations.
Griffith was informed recently that “Rock Beyond Belief” has been approved for March 31, 2012. The free event will take place outdoors at the main post parade field and be open to the public. There will be bands, vendors and activities for children. The headline speaker will be Richard Dawkins, the famous Oxford University evolutionary biologist and author.
A joint Americans United/ACLU letter may have played a key role in bringing this about. After the organizations examined the documents, we wrote to Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh and commanders at Fort Bragg to explain where they had gone wrong.
“Supporting an event designed to increase membership in Christian churches cannot be squared with [Army] regulations, much less with the First Amendment,” observed the letter. “Furthermore, based on the Army’s own admissions, it is clear that Fort Bragg officials engaged in substantial co-sponsorship and support of Rock the Fort – support that cannot plausibly be deemed ‘incidental.’”
The bottom line for us is simple. The military should welcome all service personnel regardless of their religion (or lack of it) and never play favorites. The Army’s own policies call for equal treatment, and we wanted to see it implemented in this case.
And here’s some more good news from the military: The Air Force has agreed to stop using a training course for nuclear missile launch officers that was steeped in theology. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) objected to the material, which had been used at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California for more than 20 years. Air Force officials agreed it was inappropriate.
“The group obtained a PowerPoint presentation used in the course that referenced religious figures including Abraham, John the Baptist and Saint Augustine,” reported The Washington Post. “The presentation also said that there are ‘many examples of believers engaged in wars in the Old Testament’ and ‘no pacifistic sentiment in mainstream Jewish history.’”
The Post noted that an Air Force captain who encountered the course during training in 2006 called it the “Jesus-loves-nukes speech.”
We’ve had our share of church-state problems in the military in recent years. We can only hope that these victories are a sign that things are looking up.