Thursday, 17 March 2011

Atheists in dispute with US Army over cancelled Dawkins-starring event on Fort Bragg base

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 Fort Bragg, North Carolina, is embroiled in a dispute
over a cancelled non-religious festival
American atheist and secular organisations, including the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, are embroiled in a dispute with the US Army over the last-minute cancellation of Rock Beyond Belief, a non-religious festival that was set to take place in Fort Bragg, North Carolina on 2 April.

The event, which was to feature talks and performances from a host of well-known non-believers, including Richard Dawkins, rationalist rapper Baba Brinkman, blogger Hemant Mehta and writer Dan Barker, was the brainchild of Sgt. Justin Griffith, who began organising it after a Christian festival, Rock the Fort, run by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was staged at Fort Bragg last September, endorsed and in-part funded by the military. After highlighting the fact that the event was a violation of the First Amendment of the US constitution, which requires government neutrality on issues of religion, Griffith obtained a promise that a non-religious event could be staged at Fort Bragg on the same scale, that is, on the base's main parade field with the capacity for thousands of spectators.

Sgt Justin Griffith proudly
displays his atheist credentials
However, on 1 March Griffith received a letter [PDF] from the Garrison Commander, Colonel Stephen J Sicinski, informing him that the event would be moved to a smaller, 700-capacity venue on the base, and would receive no funding from the army. Furthermore, the Colonel stated that "all advertising materials should indicate by disclaimer that there is no endorsement by Fort Bragg, the US Army, or the Department of Defense", despite the fact that the Rock the Fort event had been presented as being endorsed by military authorities. This would appear to contradict assurances given to the Freedom From Religion Foundation by Lieutenant Colonel Nelson Van Eck Jr, in a letter [PDF] received on 17 February, that "with regards to support to future events comparable to the Rock the Fort event, Fort Bragg continues to be willing to provide the same level of support to comparable events proposed by non-federal entities."

The cancellation of Rock Beyond Belief was announced on 4 March by Griffith, who stated that Fort Bragg "placed so many restrictions and unexpected changes that we are completely unable to put on the Rock Beyond Belief festival". Citing the unequal treatment afforded to a non-religious event, he added:
"Additionally, the lack of similar financial support from government-controlled funds prevents us from actually putting on an event. We were not able to utilize the same system of funding that the Evangelical Christians did, nor were we presented with any alternative (or that there was a problem in this area before March 1st)."
Richard Dawkins
Now, amid consideration of a legal challenge backed by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (whose founder Mikey Weinstein was featured in New Humanist in 2008), would-be performers at Rock Beyond Belief have been issuing "statements of intent", which Fort Bragg have apparently been telling journalists they never received (or, says Griffith, actually asked for in the first place). Taking the lead is Richard Dawkins, who declares:
"I wish to put clearly on record my strong intention to attend, and speak at, the Rock Beyond Belief festival at Fort Bragg, now sadly cancelled because of (blatantly discriminatory) lack of support from the officer commanding Fort Bragg. ‘Statement of intent’ is putting it mildly. I was hugely looking forward to it, and it was, indeed, my main reason for travelling all the way from England, at my own expense. I also announced my intention to accept no honorarium, so keen was I to support the festival. The suggestion that the festival could not have filled a large hall is absurd. Even when talking on my own, I regularly draw enthusiastic crowds by the thousands, especially in the so-called ‘bible belt’ where beleaguered non-believers flock to hear somebody articulate what they have long thought privately but never felt able to speak."
This is a story that seems set to run on, particularly if it does enter the US federal court system, so we'll keep up to date with it and pass on the news. In the meantime, do share your views in the comments.
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