Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF) have sent a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request today asking U.S. Army officials to provide information about a religious event that was held last year at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
In the FOIA request, the civil liberties groups asked Secretary of the Army John McHugh to provide documents related to an evangelical Christian rally at the fort last year and a secularist event planned for this year.
Controversy erupted last fall after military chaplains promoted “Rock the Fort,” a concert and evangelical rally put on by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in September. The event was heavily promoted by the fort and advertised to the surrounding civilian community. It also received funding coordinated through the fort.
“It is grossly unconstitutional for the U.S. military to promote proselytizing,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “The Army should respect all service personnel regardless of their beliefs about religion. Military officials should never subsidize efforts to convert soldiers – and, in this case, civilians – to one religious perspective. That’s just wrong.”
Katy Parker, legal director for the ACLU-NCLF, said, “Last fall, we expressed concern to Secretary McHugh about Army officials’ planning and support of a Christian concert. The Constitution requires that the government, including the military, remain neutral on matters of religion so that citizens, including members of the military, are free to express their own beliefs without fear of coercion or reprisal.”
Responding to criticism that government support for proselytizing violated the Constitution, military officials said events planned by those with other perspectives about religion would receive the same treatment as the Graham event.
However, after an Army sergeant planned a secularist event for April called “Rock Beyond Belief,” the event was cancelled when officials at the fort allegedly refused to give support to the sergeant. Rock Beyond Belief would have featured performers and speakers who supported the themes of atheism, reason and science, including renowned biologist and speaker Richard Dawkins.
Officials reportedly relegated the event to an indoor hall and required the event planner to make it clear that Fort Bragg was not the sponsor. Officials also reportedly stated that they would provide no financial support.
“The U.S. military has no business playing favorites with religion,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “It not only ignores the great religious diversity in our armed forces, but is also unfair and unlawful for the military to promote one religious belief system over any other.”
The joint letter from the civil liberties groups requests a copy of documents that Secretary McHugh ordered in response to complaints about involvement by military personnel in support of the Graham event. The letter also requests copies of all correspondence and documents regarding the cancelled Rock Beyond Belief event to determine whether the two events are being treated in an unequal manner.
“We seek information to determine whether Fort Bragg is extending support to Rock Beyond Belief that is substantially similar to that provided to Rock the Fort,” reads the letter. “We also seek information to determine whether Fort Bragg is imposing requirements on Rock Beyond Belief that are more restrictive than those imposed on Rock the Fort.”
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.