Church-state groups seek equal play for atheist concert

July 7, 2011

WASHINGTON (RNS) Three church-state activist groups criticized the Army
for allowing an evangelical concert at North Carolina's Fort Bragg but
not making similar provisions for a "Rock Beyond Belief" concert for
nonbelievers.

The three groups -- Americans United for Separation of Church and
State, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil
Liberties Union of North Carolina -- on Tuesday (July 5) complained to
the Secretary of the Army about events that appear to give "selective
benefits" to religious groups.

Fort Bragg hosted a Christian-themed "Rock the Fort" concert last
September that was sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic
Association, and was touted as "evangelistic in nature," according to
the three groups.

The groups alleged that Fort Bragg chaplains promoted the event,
which received "$50,000 in financial support, and $30,000 in logistical
and security support" from the Army. Such actions "cannot be squared
with (Army) regulations, much less with the First Amendment," the groups
said.

The letter also complained that a recent attempt to hold an
atheist-themed "Rock Beyond Belief" event at Fort Bragg was not granted
the same venue or the same level of financial support.

Additionally, performers -- who included atheist leaders such as
Richard Dawkins -- were also asked to provide "statements of intent."
The event was ultimately canceled after being "crippled ... with
last-minute restrictions" according to the concert website.

A news release from Americans United urged the Army to "refrain from
supporting any event that promotes religion," and to support the atheist
event "to the extent that this can be done consistently with the
Constitution."

An Army spokesman said he would look into the groups' letter but
could not comment further.