Is a Marine base discriminating against atheists?
There’s an old (and inaccurate) military saying that there are no atheists in foxholes. If the brass at Camp Pendleton in California gets its way, however, there may not be any atheists welcome at the base, period.
As reported by Sgt. Justin Griffith, military director for American Atheists, the U.S. Marine base outside San Diego recently denied a request to host the second-ever atheist festival on a military base even though religious groups have been given base access.
Griffith said in a blog post that Camp Pendleton rejected the festival on several grounds, citing: “too expensive,” “too little manpower,” “all-day rally” and “8,000 attendees.”
American Atheists fired back, noting that the group would cover the same portion of the costs as previous groups had, that the event would be a concert with speakers rather than an “all-day rally” and that Camp Pendleton has accommodated events in the past with more than 10,000 attendees.
Curiously, those in charge of the base haven’t shown the same concerns about events put on at Camp Pendleton by Armor of Light, the military wing of the evangelical Christian Calvary Chapel. The California based group, which has been embroiled in child sex abuse scandals, has held events at the base for more than a decade, including a concert for 15,000 people in 2009.
It’s pretty remarkable that this is still happening given that a nearly identical situation came up at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, eventually leading to the first-ever atheist festival held at a military base, thanks to some assistance from Americans United.
Back in the fall of 2010, Americans United learned that the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was hosting an event at Fort Bragg called “Rock the Fort.” Chaplains on base were heavily promoting the concert, which they freely admitted would be proselytizing in nature and include “a clear Gospel message.” The rally was aimed at both military personnel and civilians in the surrounding community, and one of the stated goals was to increase membership in Christian churches.
Americans United tried to get Army officials to cancel the constitutionally problematic event, but they refused and there wasn’t time for a lawsuit. Not long after that, Griffith decided that if Graham’s outfit could use the base for an evangelistic rally, he should be able to do the same for an atheist-oriented festival.
Griffith proposed an event called “Rock Beyond Belief.” He argued that his rally should receive the same base access as Graham’s Christian celebration.
Military officials gave Griffith the go-ahead but then proceeded to play games, so Americans United swung into action again. AU and the North Carolina ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request to gather information about “Rock the Fort” and determined that discrimination against the festival violated several Department of Defense regulations.
Facing the legal firepower of AU and the ACLU, officials at the fort agreed, and Griffith was able to organize the event, which took place March 31 of last year.
It has become apparent that some military officials want to use the Armed Forces to proselytize, and that they actively seek to intimidate and exclude those who don’t share their religious beliefs. Not only does this go against regulations set forth by the Department of Defense, it is unconstitutional.
Clearly military officials haven’t learned their lesson from Fort Bragg, but we know that military protocol and the U.S. Constitution stand against bigotry and religious favoritism. It may take some time, but we are optimistic that equal treatment and justice will prevail.