Protest the latest military religious discrimination!
I’m not the one who owes everyone an apology, but I’m offering one anyway.
On March 1st we received the Fort Bragg Garrison Commander’s final decision letter, which by all indications was going to approve everything we asked for. Obviously, it didn’t. It placed so many restrictions and unexpected changes that we are completely unable to put on the Rock Beyond Belief festival. 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).
It has been a long process involving nearly six months of hard work from an all volunteer group of brilliant individuals. Our final packet that we submitted in early January (not the first packet either) started going through the appropriate officials and committees, and I would get updates as it progressed. By mid-February, the packet had been with one of the very last stops on the journey for weeks: ‘LEGAL’. Our patience paid off, and on February 17th, they signaled to us that their official legal recommendations to the commander would include everything we asked for. Keep in mind, we made a point to ask for exactly the same treatment as Rock the Fort, in accordance with the Freedom Of Information Act documents that came out in early January.
At that point, we only had to wait for the Garrison Commander to sign off, and we finally relaxed as the hard part was finally over. Unfortunately, his decision letter went against the recommendations of his legal staff (as is his right to do). This came as a total surprise to us, and completely blindsided everyone involved. I tried to do a face to face meeting and a formal rebuttal to his letter, but it did not have any effect. You can read our response to the letter below.
I have reviewed your decision letter at great length. It is with great personal cost and heartache that I must inform you that we are abandoning hope for the ‘similar level of support’ to the evangelical Christian event that LTG Helmick referenced in September. Despite your own legal staff’s recommendations to provide everything we asked for, we are not getting anything close to that. Mr. Michael L. “Mikey” Weinstein, President of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, (MRFF http://www.militaryreligiousfreedom.org ) has offered to litigate on our behalf, and we are likely to take Mr. Weinstein and MRFF up on the offer. For the following reasons we view the limiting terms and restrictions embedded in your decision letter as making our event untenable.
Fort Bragg had officially endorsed and co-sponsored the Rock the Fort event, even going as far as to promote it as part of the Spiritual Fitness initiative. The stated mission for Rock the Fort was growing their membership, and converting as many people to their particular version of evangelical Christianity as possible. Every flyer, poster, and newspaper / radio advertisement contained official Fort Bragg phone numbers, and the press releases were all on Fort Bragg letterhead. I received several notices and emails on my official Fort Bragg email account, from both the Religious Support Office and Public Affairs Office. It is completely unreasonable to consider the demand to place a specific disclaimer that there is no endorsement for the non-religious themed Rock Beyond Belief event, and still claim that a similar level of support is given to us. We weren’t even planning to hold a membership drive like the evangelical Christian event, rather, we took the high road and avoided implying that people’s religious beliefs needed to be changed at all. The Rock Beyond Belief event was potentially a real force for changing the military’s climate of intolerance for non-religious and non-spiritual Soldiers. Instead this has turned into the reinforcement of those prejudices.
Additionally, the disparity between the financial support given to the evangelical Christian membership drive, and that offered to our secular festival ($0) is not only offensive, but also fatal to even pulling off our event. We took Fort Bragg at their word when they pledged an equal playing field would be leveled for all groups. For the last five months, we have strung along so many performers with an exciting and unique opportunity, and they have invested a great deal of time, energy, and money to accommodate our schedule. Our own personal fundraising is supposed to cover their travel and honorariums, which we barely scraped together. Significant money was indeed spent on the air fare, and honorarium for one of their guests, as well as hotel arrangements for 39 guests. So when you remove the ‘same level of support’ that the evangelical Christian membership drive event got from government controlled funds, our event can not afford to pay our performers’ hotel bills, and meals, much less afford to build a professional stage and hire electricians. Rock the Fort spent significantly more money on sandwiches and donuts ($7,730) than we requested for the hotels + meals combined. Overall, our event had proposed to spend nearly $15,000 less than the evangelical Christians spent from government controlled funds (approximately $54,500) for nearly identical items.
Finally, the sudden and unexplained venue change is extremely detrimental to our ability to put on a similar event to the evangelical Christian ‘Rock the Fort’ festival. Your letter even points to a fact that we have in common with the Rock the Fort event, that our lineup is primarily speakers and ‘musical performers who are not chart-makers’, confusingly used as justification for differential treatment. Although there are no perfect metrics to compare such radically different types of non-mainstream music, a simple comparison of ‘YouTube’ plays yields a viable method. The numbers from a single musician on our lineup, Roy Zimmerman, completely outshines the evangelical Christian lineup combined, and by a wide margin. If you count regular attendance numbers for our headliner, it’s difficult to find a big enough venue to hold the crowd that Richard Dawkins attracts at public speaking engagements. When I mentioned a short list of his recent audience numbers, you dismissed them as unique only to ‘college towns’. Though, demonstrably untrue, it seems odd to imply that an extremely large and prestigious military base isn’t also a college town. Promotions within the military explicitly depend on civilian education, and the military goes to great lengths to provide a rigorous college experience, rendering Fort Bragg a ‘college town’ in its own right. The post theater that you offered has a maximum capacity of 700, and prevents us from receiving further requested equal treatment, such as the Golden Knights paratroopers jumping at our event, room for vendors and booths, as well as a kiddie-land with rock climbing and bounce houses. None of those things are possible indoors, and a minimum requirement for projected attendance wasn’t even mentioned as a conditional requirement to host an event with a similar level of support.
Currently, the Christian population is the biggest piece of Fort Bragg’s religious demographics. The next largest group of people is the ‘No Religious Preference’ group, a crowd we obviously would have drawn heavily from, and have crafted our event to specifically cater to this group. The previous offer for ‘similar levels of support’ rings especially empty when the very next biggest group in fact does not receive much of any support. The non-religious segment of the military will one day be respected and given equal treatment, but sadly today is not the day.
As a reminder, the event that inspired us to put Rock Beyond Belief together was the evangelical Christian Rock the Fort – a Spiritual Fitness event co-sponsored by the Religious Support Office at Fort Bragg and the Billy Graham Evangelical Association. That membership-drive event had a stated goal of converting as many soldiers, spouses, and civilians as possible to their particular version of Christianity. They were very successful, having bragged about converting 500 on stage at one event, and 200 at another.
We at Rock Beyond Belief decided to take the high road and that two wrongs don’t make a right. Our festival was not going to attempt to ‘de-convert’ or ‘de-baptize’ anyone. Rather, we were going to raise awareness and tolerance of the non-religious segment of the military, while at the same time respecting other’s beliefs as private. We had no interest in telling our crowd that their current religious preference was wrong, incomplete, or in some way needing to be changed.
A major opportunity for good was lost. Friends, guests, bloggers, and proper media have been contacting me for more details on the situation, and I’ve been trying to keep up. If you need to contact me, I will reply as soon as it is possible. Please include a phone number in your email address. To everyone out there that was a part of Rock Beyond Belief, I would like to sincerely thank you. Many of our heroes had agreed to be a part of this, and I have been honored to have a local team so dedicated and talented. I’m not sure where we go from here, but there will be more information posted here as it comes.
Once again, I am not the one that owes you all an apology, but I’m offering one.
***Update 2AM, March 5, 2011***
It seems that many people are asking who they should send letters to. FFRF has graciously put out an action alert that contains a few extremely relevant addresses. I will be cross-posting the alert in a new post when I coordinate with all the other amazingly helpful secular organizations too. There are a few email addresses in the comments section here as well.