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Photo: Scott Radetski, 49, left, a retired Navy chaplain; Marine Staff Sgt. Justin Rettenberger; and Gunnery Sgt. Josue Magana, 32, erect a cross atop a hill at Camp Pendleton. Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times  Photo: Scott Radetski, 49, left, a retired Navy chaplain; Marine Staff Sgt. Justin Rettenberger; and Gunnery Sgt. Josue Magana, 32, erect a cross atop a hill at Camp Pendleton. Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times   

Atheist group demands cross be removed from Marine base

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Caroline May
Political Reporter

An atheist group is demanding a 13-foot cross, erected at Camp Pendleton by an independent group of Iraq War veterans and two Marine widows, be removed out of concerns that it makes non-Christians in the military feel like “second class citizens.”

Jason Torpy of Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF), the group which has been at the forefront of a fight against the cross, told The Daily Caller that MAAF is trying to protect the separation of church and state and ensure the military is inclusive of all beliefs.

“It’s an important message that we certainly respect veterans because we are veterans and we have active duty personnel,” Torpy said. “They can have a war memorial — that is fine. But if it is a Christian memorial, it needs to be on private land. That is the long and the short of it.”

According to Camp Pendleton, legal authorities are currently investigating the situation, and upon completion of the review, will send their findings up the chain of command.

“As Marines, we are proud to honor our fallen brothers, and are also proud of our extended Marine Corps family,” Pendleton wrote in a statement to TheDC. “However, it is important to follow procedure and use appropriate processes for doing this in a correct manner to protect the sentiment from question as well as be good stewards of our taxpayer dollars.”

The cross, put up on Veterans Day, replaced a cross erected in 2003 that burned in a base wildfire years later. The new cross is made of fire-retardant material in the hope that it will not meet its predecessor’s fate.

“We wanted them all to know that they’ll always be in our hearts, that they’ll never be forgotten,” Staff Sgt. Justin Rettenberger, one of the Marines who put up the cross on Veterans Day, told the LA Times.

According to Rettenberger, the cross is dedicated to the memory of Maj. Douglas Zembiec, Maj. Ray Mendoza, Lance Cpl. Aaron Austin and Lance Cpl. Robert Zurheide — “all great warriors” killed in Iraq.

While Pendleton is deliberating the legality of the cross — noting that the individual who put up the cross were not active duty, but private citizens — MAAF is demanding that the cross be taken down immediately.

“Those commanders are not there to promote Christianity, they are there to carry out the Marine mission,” Torpy, a West Point graduate who spent ten years in the Army, including tours of duty in Iraq and Kuwait, said.

Despite the complaints, which according to the base’s public affairs office has amounted to two emails of displeasure, no lawsuits have been reported.

Torpy told TheDC that while his group’s focus is not legal action, there are groups who could potentially take up a legal complaint against Pendleton. He would not, however, speculate as to who that might be.

The conservative American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) has written a letter to Camp Pendleton’s commanding officer, Col. Nicholas F. Marano, in support of the cross. ACLJ argued that the crosses are a “universal symbol of remembrance” and cited historical precedent for this type of display not violating the Establishment Clause.

“[T]he Constitution does not prohibit honoring fallen troops through the use of an historic symbol merely because that symbol also carries religious significance,” wrote ACLJ. “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 concluded.

Randall Hamud, a civil rights activist and San Diego lawyer, took a different view in an opinion article published this week, writing that the cross is indubitably a violation of the Establish Clause due to its placement on federal land.

“Had this scenario unfolded on private land, nobody could question its propriety. However, their project was carried out on public property — Camp Pendleton is a military base owned by the federal government,” Hamud wrote. “When they erected their cross on that hilltop, they violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution — the very Constitution for which those four fallen Marines — and all of our fallen military personnel in all of our wars — sacrificed their lives.”

As Pendleton continues to deliberate, the cross’s fate is uncertain.

“It cannot be determined at this time if the cross will be allowed to stay,” Pendleton’s Office of Public Affairs wrote in a statement provided to TheDC. “Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton is aware of the memorial cross emplacement and the activity is currently being reviewed by legal staff. Upon completion of the review, findings will be forwarded up the appropriate chain of command.”

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