AU, ACLU Investigate Possible Bias Over Concerts At Fort Bragg

Attorneys with Americans United for Separation of Church and State are investigating possible religious bias at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where a controversy over an evangelistic event continues to simmer.

On March 25, Americans United, the American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation joined forces to send a Freedom of Information request to U.S. Army officials. The request asks the Army to provide information about a religious event that was held last year at the fort.

The civil liberties groups asked Secretary of the Army John McHugh to provide documents related to an evangelical Christian rally at the fort 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. (See “Army of God,” November 2010 Church & State.)

“It is grossly unconstitutional for the U.S. military to promote proselytizing,” said 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.”

Responding to criticism that government support for proselytizing violates the Constitution, military officials said events planned by those with other perspectives about religion would receive the same treatment as the Graham event.

However, when Sgt. Justin Griffith planned a secularist event for April called “Rock Beyond Belief,” he ran into difficulties. 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 advocate atheism, reason and science, including renowned zoologist and speaker Richard Dawkins.

Officials reportedly relegated the event to an indoor hall and required the planner to make it clear that Fort Bragg was not the sponsor. Officials also stated that they would provide no financial support.

Garrison Commander Col. Stephen Sicinski said Fort Bragg officials believed that Griffith’s event would only draw a few hundred people and thus assigned it space at the Main Post Theater or the York Theater instead of an outdoor venue.

Griffith disputed those numbers. He pointed out that Dawkins had agreed to appear at the event, and that the Oxford professor has given lectures that have drawn thousands of attendees, with people often turned away at the door.

Sicinski also said no tax dollars subsidized “Rock the Fort.” He said the money came from an account known as the Chaplain Tithes and Offering Fund, a resource that he said consists of donations given by churchgoers.

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.”