Sunday, January 30, 2011

U.S. Army Funds and Hosts Overtly Christian Festival

On September 25th of last year, a "Rock the Fort" event took place at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where Christian bands and evangelists performed for U.S. Army troops under the support of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association. While the event was not mandatory for anyone to attend, documents recently obtained from a Freedom of Information Act reveal that the military spent $52,475 on Rock the Fort. One worship leader was reportedly given a $1,500 honorarium. However, these are only disclosed expenditures, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which requested the budget documents, estimates the cost to have been much higher.

Government funding of a sectarian event like Rock the Fort is undeniably in violation of the First Amendment. "Our goal," the director of the event explains in the first link above, "is to share the Gospel with as many people as possible." The First Amendment prohibits the U.S. government from respecting an establishment of religion, and using taxpayer money on an overtly Christian event is doing just that. It does not matter if other religious events would be allowed at the fort with equal financial support from the military, because the First Amendment does not stipulate that it's okay as long as you let everyone participate. The point of church-state separation is that by no one being allowed to participate, no one is left out and no one is favored, and this is far more practical than squeezing in every religion. Government has no business in supporting religion, especially when Billy Graham's organization could have easily covered a $52,000 bill with its millions upon millions of dollars.

Yet even if the military had not funded the event at all, Rock the Fort would still be in violation of the First Amendment, because Fort Bragg is government property. This is the same issue as displaying religious symbols like the Ten Commandments on courthouses. The only way to truly guarantee that all beliefs and views are respected is to keep government neutral when it comes to religion, permitting no group to erect their display or hold their sectarian event on government property.

Of course, one additional point that should be added to this is that government complicity must be reasonably present. A religious group holding a prayer rally on the steps of the capitol would not be a violation of the First Amendment, because that government property is open to the public and the public is free to protest in such a manner, according to the Constitution. In the case of a military base, however, said government property is not public, and so the Army endorses religion when it approves of an event like Rock the Fort on its own private land.

Speaking of protest, an atheist response to Rock the Fort is in the works, called Rock Beyond Belief, tentatively set to feature Richard Dawkins, Dan Barker, Eugenie Scott, and other notable atheists, as well as live music. I think people often misunderstand the point of reactions like these, though, as they are not about competing with Christians or attacking others. The point of atheist Christmas displays, atheist festivals like Rock Beyond Belief, and any equivalent response to violations of church and state separation is to emphasize the need for staying neutral. Where does it end if you allow all groups to participate? Will Fort Bragg let a Rock for Satan happen? Rock for Allah? Rock for Quetzacoatl?

If Rock the Fort had not happened, there would be no need for Rock Beyond Belief, Rock for Satan, or any other event. Once again, when government remains immovably silent on religion, no one will be offended except for those who wish to shove their views down everyone's throats. Unfortunately for them, we are not a theocracy, and they battle against a government that was created specifically in opposition of such tyranny.

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