[An earlier version of this article did not include comments by the public affairs office at Camp Pendleton. The updated version includes comments by Maj. Erin H. Mackin, deputy director of public affairs for Marine Corps Installations West.]
Several Marines memorialized the lives of four of their fallen comrades last week by erecting a 13-foot cross on top of a hill at a California military base on Veteran's Day. This week, a national organization representing atheists in the military is speaking out, arguing that some veterans are “using their service to try to defend Christian privileges” and religious symbols don't belong on government-owned land.
Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF), told The Christian Post on Thursday that the cross is a “wonderful gesture” in remembrance of the fallen Marines, but said its location on public land “makes us feel like the federal government privileges Christianity over non-Christians like us, makes us feel like second-class citizens.”
“These Marines were honoring their fallen comrades, of that I am certain,” Torpy wrote in a blog post. “And their desire to erect a large cross to honor their memory is perfectly acceptable, so long as it is on church land or their own property, not on federal land.”
According to the Los Angeles Times, a group of soldiers took two hours to carry the cross to the top of the hill where it was erected. It was placed there in memory of four soldiers – Maj. Ray Mendoza, Maj. Douglas Zembiec, Lance Cpl. Aaron Austin and Lance Cpl. Robert Zurheide – who were all killed at different times while serving in Iraq.
Mendoza's widow and their two children, along with Zurheide's widow and their son (who was born after his father was killed), were also in attendance when the cross was setup.
“We wanted them all to know that they’ll always be in our hearts, that they’ll never be forgotten,” said Staff Sgt. Justin Rettenberger, who helped setup the cross, according to the LA Times.
A similar cross was erected on the hill in 2003, but it was destroyed by a wild fire. The new cross is constructed of fire retardant materials so as to protect it from damage by any future fires.
According to North County Times, Camp Pendleton's public affairs office issued a statement saying that the cross had not been approved by base officials.
The statement said those who put up the cross were acting as individuals, not as representatives of the military, and “were not acting in any official position or capacity that may be construed as an endorsement of a specific religious denomination by the Department of Defense or the U.S. Marine Corps."
Torpy says that by allowing the cross to stand on public land, they are approving of the cross indirectly.
"As long as it's up, then it's passed approval,” he said. “If it can be on federal land then it must be okay with the leadership, regardless."
Maj. Erin H. Mackin, deputy director of public affairs for Marine Corps Installations West, told CP via email that a legal staff is reviewing the situation and no lawsuits have yet been filed, but says it is unclear whether or not the cross will be allowed to stay.
"Camp Pendleton legal authorities are researching and reviewing the issue in order to make a judicious decision," she wrote. "As Marines, we are proud to honor our fallen brothers, and are also proud of our extended Marine Corps family, but it is important to follow procedure and use appropriate processes for doing this in an appropriate manner to protect the sentiment from question as well as be good stewards of our taxpayer dollars."
A similar controversy over the placement of religious symbols on public land is gaining attention in Montana, where some say a statue of Jesus doesn't belong on Flathead National Forest land, while others argue that it is a World War II memorial and is highly valued by the local community.
Torpy says these symbols, though called veterans memorials, are still alienating to Jews, Muslims and atheists who have also served in the military. He contends he also knows Christians who don't like the symbol of their faith being described in a “kind of ceremonial, general, non-specific, secular representation of service.”
“I can understand the argument that it degrades religion just as much as I see it subverting the Constitution,” he said.
Congressman Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) has encouraged the Forest Service to allow the statue of Jesus to stay, making the argument that allowing religious symbols on government land isn't the same as the government endorsing a certain religion.
“Using a tiny section of public land for a war memorial with religious themes is not the same as establishing a state religion,” he said. “That’s true whether it’s a cross or a Star of David on a headstone in the Arlington National Cemetery, an angel on the Montana Vietnam Memorial in Missoula or a statue of Jesus on Big Mountain.”