More than 1,000 people gathered recently at Fort Bragg in North Carolina for a festival called “Rock Beyond Belief” that is believed to have been the first openly atheistic event to take place at a military installation.
The March 31 event, which featured bands, speeches and children’s activities, came about because the army base in the fall of 2010 played host to a rally called “Rock the Fort” sponsored by evangelist Billy Graham’s ministry. In response, an atheist soldier requested equal time.
Fort Bragg chaplains heavily promoted “Rock the Fort,” which they freely admitted would be proselytizing in nature and include “a clear Gospel message.” The rally was aimed at both military personnel and civilians in the surrounding community, and one of the stated goals was to increase membership in Christian churches.
Americans United tried to get Army officials to cancel the constitutionally problematic event, but they refused and there wasn’t time for a lawsuit. Not long after that, Sgt. Justin Griffith decided that if Graham’s outfit could use the base for an evangelistic rally, he should be able to do the same for an atheist-oriented festival.
Griffith proposed an event to promote atheism called “Rock Beyond Belief.” He argued that his rally should receive the same support as Graham’s Christian celebration.
Base officials gave Griffith the go-ahead but then proceeded to treat his event quite differently. For example, they assigned Griffith an indoor venue with a modest seating capacity when he had clearly indicated that he wanted to hold an outdoor festival comparable to what Graham’s group did.
At this point, Americans United and the North Carolina ACLU intervened in the matter again. The groups filed a Freedom of Information Act request to gather information about “Rock the Fort” and determined that the festival violated several Department of Defense regulations.
AU and the ACLU also informed Army officials that they must cease discriminating against “Rock Beyond Belief.” While the groups didn’t advocate for direct public support for the event, they did insist that officials at Fort Bragg give the non-belief festival a comparable venue and the same logistical support that “Rock the Fort” received.
Facing the legal firepower of AU and the ACLU, officials at the fort agreed, and Griffith began planning the event. Speakers included Richard Dawkins, a world-famous Oxford University zoologist known for his defense of evolution; Todd Stiefel, a North Carolina church-state separation activist and member of AU’s National Advisory Council, and Nathan Phelps, son of the controversial Kansas minister Fred Phelps, who rejects his father’s hateful theology. (Stiefel, who heads the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, donated $50,000 to fund the event.)