Military Atheists protest Pendleton Cross
To honor the memory of four Marine comrades killed in Iraq and to show respect for all military personnel sent to foreign lands, a small but determined group trudged up a steep hill at Camp Pendleton on Friday morning as the nation observed Veterans Day.
At precisely the date and time when World War I officially ended, giving rise to Armistice Day -- the forerunner to Veterans Day -- the group erected a 13-foot cross. The cross replaced one put on the hill in 2003 by the Marines before they deployed to Iraq. It was destroyed by a brush fire.
The four Marines were part of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. The 2/1 was a lead element in the battle of Fallouja in early 2004.
“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. He was also with the 2/1 and will deploy soon for his second tour to Afghanistan with a different battalion. He was wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan but insisted on reenlisting.
Naturally and predictably, this led to a complaint from the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers:
After receiving a complaint from an atheists' organization, Marine brass at Camp Pendleton are reviewing whether to permit a cross atop a hill on the base to remain.
After an article about the new cross appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers protested to base officials that the cross violates the separation of church and state required by the Constitution.
Specifically, MAAF on it’s website states that:
MAAF spends the vast majority of its time fostering community and providing outreach to the military. In a case where federal officials allow to stand a prominent Christian cross as a representation of military service, atheists, humanists, and all non-Christians who have fought and died for our country are relegated to second-class citizenship.
Heh, that fostering community thing doesn’t seem to be working out too well, judging by the comments left at their website, including this well written one by “Frontliner233”:
Ladies and gentlemen, I am a fellow atheist and have been for over ten years. I joined the Marine Corps in 2002 and continue to serve today. Never in that time have I been asked to change my beliefs or encouraged to be silent about my religious opinions… I will say that the opposition to that monument by this organization disgusts me and takes away from our brotherhood and all that we stand for. I suggest instead that we devise an equal memorial for non religious service members to be erected near the camp Horno site. I think we all know that the symbol chosen to represent the current memorial may have been ill chosen but that when it comes to the brotherhood My understanding of military service it represents more than just one secular faith. [Corrected for grammar and spelling]
Other commenters both at the MAAF site and at This Ain’t Hell where my buddy Jonn is covering the story agree that this might not be the fight to take up. As “Andy FMF” said:
Maybe they should ask the dead what they think.
My sergeant, an avowed atheist, fully supported that cross. Nine months later I was climbing that hill, with the rest of my company, to put his rock at the base of the cross.
The cross is visible if you know where to look and if the clouds are not hiding Microwave.
For my part, I’ve always believed what Justice Kennedy so eloquently stated in the Mojave Desert Cross case:
A Latin cross is not merely a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs. It is a symbol often used to honor and respect those whose heroic acts, noble contributions and patient striving help secure an honored place in history for this Nation and its people.
Here, one Latin cross in the desert evokes far more than religion. It evokes thousands of small crosses in foreign fields making the graves of Americans who fell in battles, battles whose tragedies are compounded if the fallen are forgotten.
I think that MAAF will likely win this, and the Marine Corps will have it taken down. But, I don’t see this being a huge victory for them, as many non-believers have looked to the cross not as a religious symbol, but as a tribute to their fallen brothers and sisters. Knowing when not to fight something might be a bigger boost than winning a fight that will gain you nothing.
There is a great video at the LA Times blog, but they have the embed cut off so go watch it there.