The American Center for Law and Justice is speaking out in support of a veterans memorial cross by urging officials at Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base in California to allow it to continue standing on the military base's land.
The cross was erected on top of a hill at the military base as a memorial to four Marines who died while serving the United States in Iraq, but the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers says religious symbols, whether they are memorials or not, are not legally permitted to stand on public land.
The ACLJ responded to MAAF's sentiments by sending a letter to Camp Pendleton's commanding officer, Col. Nicholas F. Marano, to explain why keeping the cross is not a violation of the Constitution's Establishment Clause.
The letter cites a number of different court cases and even offers historical and literary evidence, arguing that making a proper judgment requires an understanding of why the cross was erected, not just an understanding of its religious symbolism.
The ACLJ argues that “crosses are used as a widespread and universal symbol of remembrance,” as is the case in cemeteries and other memorials.
“In sum, the Constitution does not prohibit honoring fallen troops through the use of an historic symbol merely because that symbol also carries religious significance. Given the memorial’s history and context, it is clear that it is not intended to proselytize for any faith. It is meant to honor and commemorate the sacrifice of those who have given the ultimate sacrifice,” the letter states in its conclusion.
“In fact, the Constitution forbids the type of 'relentless and all-pervasive attempt to exclude religion from every aspect of public life' that critics’ statements suggest. Id. Crosses are an apt, appropriate, and constitutionally permissible means of honoring and commemorating the sacrifice of those who have given their life for their comrades and their country.”
The controversy over the cross began on Nov. 11 when a small group, including three Marines, carried the 13-foot cross to the top of a Camp Pendleton hill where it was erected in memory of the fallen Marines. Also present when the cross was erected were the widows and children of two of the men whom the memorial stands in honor of.
A similar cross was erected at the base in 2003, but was burned down in a wild fire several years later. The new cross is constructed of fire retardant materials in order to ensure that it will last.
Jason Torpy, president of MAAF, told The Christian Post last week that his organization contacted Camp Pendleton to express its concerns. He said that the cross should not be considered a secular war memorial, because it is symbolic of Christianity and therefore excludes veterans who hold to other religious beliefs.
Torpy said some veterans are “using their service to try to defend Christian privileges,” and that allowing the cross on government property subverts the Constitution. His organization, he added, shouldn't be able to put up explicitly atheist signs either, because “we wouldn't think it's okay from a constitutional perspective as well as from a standard politeness perspective.”
The memorial is a “wonderful gesture,” Torpy said, but should have been placed on private property.
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the ACLJ, wrote about the cross in a blog post, calling MAAF's reasoning as to why it should be removed “ridiculous.”
“The Constitution does not prohibit honoring fallen troops through the use of a historic symbol merely because that symbol also carries religious significance,” he wrote. “In fact, the Constitution forbids excluding religion from every aspect of public life, precisely the goal of the MAAF and other atheist groups.”
Lt. Ryan Finnegan of Camp Pendleton's public affairs office told CP via email on Monday that the base's “legal staff is carefully researching and reviewing the topic in order to make a balanced and unbiased command recommendation that is ultimately supported by the law.” So far, no decision has been made.