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Foxhole atheists plan to rock the base at Fort Bragg

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Sgt. Justin Griffith took up Fort Bragg officials on their promise not to discriminate on on-base activities after a 2010 concert and festival organized by evangelical Christians.

After a sometimes painful 18 months of gestation, Sgt. Justin Griffith of Fort Bragg, N.C., exclaims, "My baby is about to be born!" His baby is Rock Beyond Belief, apparently the first major atheist event on a U.S. military base.

Griffith, 29, who has served five years in the Army, including two deployments to Iraq, has been wrestling with the overwhelmingly Christian establishment in the Army since September 2010 to get to this point.

The March 31 event is Griffith’s answer to Rock the Fort — a day-long evangelical Christian concert and festival held at Fort Bragg on Sept. 25, 2010, put on by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, with the support and blessing of the military brass. It was the fourth in a series of events sponsored  by the group on various U.S. bases dating to 2009.


Among the headliners for the all-day atheist festival on the base are scientist Richard Dawkins, the rock band Aiden and singer/songwriter Roy Zimmerman.


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Griffith is most proud that the event has garnered the same material support from the military that it gave the evangelical Christian event. This week, he announced that he had secured a commitment for the U.S. Army Golden Knights — an elite skydiving team — to perform in the festival, despite the reluctance of some of the team’s Christian members.

"We asked for apples-to-apples treatment to the (Christian) event," said Griffith. "We fought for it. I won. I think (Fort Bragg leadership) won too because they did the right thing."

Griffith, who describes himself as a hardcore atheist, said he loves the Army, but he is constantly chafing at prayers — Christian, or non-specific invocations — that routinely are included in military ceremonies. But the Rock the Fort concert and festival spurred him to action.

"They bragged that they got hundreds of soldiers …  to accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior," said Griffith of the concert-festival series. "That is unacceptable. The chaplain’s job is not to grow their flock, it’s their job to take tend to the existing flock."

Griffith was the most outspoken critic of the event on the base, though a number of groups — Freedom from Religion Foundation, American United for the Separation of Church and State and others — said the event violated the constitutional separation of church and state.

Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick who leads the 18th Airborne Corps responded by saying that soldiers were not pressured to attend the event, and assured critics that he would provide the same opportunity to non-Christian groups that wanted to host similar events, according to a USA Today report at the time. Garrison Commander Stephen Sicinski provided a similar guarantee in writing, Griffith said.

So Griffith started planning Rock Beyond Belief. The process was bumpy — and bureaucratic — but the event was eventually approved for April 2011.

But when he learned that the forum set aside for the event would hold only a few hundred people — "a broom closet" in his estimation — he canceled it. Arguing that Dawkins, a noted genetics scientist and atheist celebrity, alone routinely pulls much larger crowds than that, he reapplied for a bigger venue this year, and won approval for the March 31 gathering, a year later.

Rock Beyond Belief has drawn some fierce criticism. Army Chaplain Chuck Williams, for example, posted an open letter on Fort Bragg’s Facebook page calling for cancelation of the event, which he contended is being held only "to secure a public, government-owned venue to ridicule, mock and disparage those of our fellow Soldiers and family members who do profess a faith in God."

He also wrote that "part of this event will be glorifying violence against people who possess a faith in God through the burning of churches," a reference to lyrics from a song by Aiden. "This is appalling!"

Griffith blames a Fox News commentary by Todd Starnes for the furor, charging that he misunderstood the lyrics, which were satirical. The band’s lead singer wrote that the song “Hysteria” was actually a condemnation of faith-on-faith violence and hatred.

Although the event appears set to go forward, the debate continues. Griffith said he has received "bizarre death threats," but he also feels the conversation is changing, and putting Fort Bragg in a new light.

"I’m so proud of Fort Bragg and this is not supposed to be a black eye to them," he said. "These little corrections are important, and the Army deserves them. I want to know if I have crumbs on my face. That’s what this is. If it’s a big deal it’s only temporarily a big deal."

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