Why the Camp Pendleton Cross Needs to Come Down

A group of “Iraq War veterans and two Marine widows” recently erected a 13-foot cross to honor friends who lost their lives in battle. If that’s all it was, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. I might think the cross was excessive — my god’s dick is bigger than yours — but I wouldn’t try to stop them.

The problem is that they put it up at Camp Pendleton, a military base that’s public space. It’s as illegal as putting a Nativity Scene in front of City Hall… but this one packs much more of an emotional punch: Criticize the cross and you’re really criticizing fallen soldiers.

Jason Torpy, the president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF) and a war veteran himself, is trying to raise a challenge to this, but he’s having a tough time finding support. It’s too bad because he makes a lot of sense:

“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.

Jason’s not asking a lot. Just move the cross to a private area and he won’t protest. As it stands, what’s going on ought to be considered government promotion of Christianity — and that has no business in our country, no matter where it’s happening and no matter what it represents.

This isn’t the first time a violation has occurred, either. A cross first went up on that space in 2003 (by individuals acting without authorization). It was accidentally burned down in a base-wide fire in 2007. In 2008, a new cross took its place (more on that in a moment), again without official authorization, though a unit commander seemed to be in charge. Finally, that cross was replaced last month with this current fire-resistant one.

You should check out the video from when the 2008 cross went up. There’s actually official Pendleton video of an entire unit marching up to the cross — as well as video of a Sergeant Major giving a Christian prayer:

If all that isn’t government endorsement of religion, then what is?

It’s unbelievable how Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice is responding to this. He says the cross should stay up because it’s really just “used as a widespread and universal symbol of remembrance.”

In other words, crosses aren’t really Christian, so stop complaining.

Yeah… and in other news, the Pope ain’t Catholic.

(***Edit***: For what it’s worth, the Supreme Court has previously ruled, wrongly, that the cross is not Christian.)

The lawsuit is still up in the air right now. Military officials haven’t made a final decision about it.

Activist and lawyer Randall Hamud makes a strong argument for why the cross needs to come down:

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. 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.

During the last 20 years, our armed forces have fought three wars. U.S. service members killed or wounded in those theaters of conflict have included not only Christians, but also Jews, Muslims and those of many other denominations, as well as atheists and agnostics. Yet a Christian cross now adorns a hilltop inside Camp Pendleton. That is plainly wrong. By definition, the cross symbolizes and favors Christianity, to the chagrin of Jewish, Muslim and other non-Christian service members who take the same oath as their Christian counterparts to defend the Constitution and who, on occasion, are also called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice.

Let’s hope the judges see it that way, too.

Jason makes a final plea to Christians who see him as the enemy for trying to take down the cross:

Those individuals who took it upon themselves to post this cross have imposed their beliefs on others. Those who ignored this violation, or worse, forced their units into mandatory prayer at this cross, should bear responsibility for the hurt feelings and offense that Christian Marines now feel as this cross is challenged. This would not have happened had a Flag, plaque, or non-sectarian statue been placed. This would not have happened had those Marines chosen to place their memorial on private land rather than federal land. MAAF hopes that those Marines who placed this cross can prevent this bad will by stepping forward to propose a non-sectarian memorial to honor all Marines.

Let’s throw some support Jason’s way. He’s doing the right thing and getting a lot of flak for it. Speak up. Write about this. If you’d like to make a donation to MAAF, that’d be helpful, too. Better yet, if you’re a part of our military, please consider becoming a member.

You can also send an email to the Camp Pendleton Inspector General letting the office know you don’t approve of the Pendleton Cross.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    A group of “Iraq War veterans and two Marine widows” recently erected a 13-foot cross to honor friends who lost their lives in battle…

    I don’t understand the thought process that leads to something like this. Did their friends die for Jeebus? No! They died as marines, fighting for the interests of their country. A distinctly American memorial, such as a flag, or an eagle would certainly be more appropriate. It’s the same deal with the Utah State Police memorials; bringing in Jeebus just doesn’t make any sense.

    • Erik Cameron

      We don’t know what they died for, the article doesn’t say.

      • Reginald Selkirk

        “four Marines killed in combat in Iraq and to veterans in general.”

  • Kate Johnson47

    The law is the law. It never ceases to amaze me how christians think it doesn’t apply to them because they have the ignorant masses on their side.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    It’s unbelievable how Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice is responding to this. He says the cross should stay up because it’s really just “used as a widespread and universal symbol of remembrance.”

    Either Jay Sekulow has never been to a Jewish or Muslim cemetery, or else he’s dirt stupid.

  • ed-words

    You know that famous statue of  Marines erecting a flag on Iwo Jima?
    If they had it to over again . . .

  • Rich Wilson

    It’s as illegal as putting a Nativity Scene in front of City Hall

    Which is far from clear cut.

    FFRF

    Therefore, determining whether a crèche or menorah displayed on public property in your hometown violates the Supreme Court’s current interpretation of the Establishment Clause is highly dependent upon the facts and circumstances surrounding the display. While it is permissible for governments to celebrate the holiday season, there are certain limitations on holiday displays on public property.

    http://ffrf.org/faq/state-church/religious-displays-on-public-property/

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Another developing story:
    Sam’s Club bans Lego Bible

    In an e-mail interview, Smith said that he had found out about the Sam’s
    Club ban from his publisher who told him that, essentially, “the book
    was pulled after an unspecified small number of complaints had been made
    by Sam’s Club customers that the book is vulgar and violent, and that
    the author is an atheist.”

    Of course it’s vulgar and violent, it’s based on the Bible! As for the religious views of the authors, it’s sad if Sam’s Club is basing their decisions on that.

    • Rich Wilson

      Awesome.  Can’t ask for better publicity than the Streisand Effect.

      I wonder what would happen if people would complain about other versions of the bible, with appropriate citations.

    • Anonymous

      Let’s demand that they also ban the source material

      Seems like some mother expected a selection of fluffy story pieces for children, but got the truth instead

      • Reginald Selkirk

        a selection of fluffy story pieces for children

        Like this one: Illustrated Stories from the Bible by Paul Farrell. It makes a great Christmas gift. I wonder if Sam’s Club carries it.

        but got the truth instead.

        I can’t agree wit that. They got religious fairy tales, not truth.

      • Rod Chlebek

        Yes. Ban the source material. That thing should be NC17.

  • Rob

    Well just so you know Justice Scalia also thinks that a cross isn’t necessarily Christian. Which is to say something similar already went to the Supreme Court and was ruled on. Link away:

    http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/supreme_court_dispatches/2009/10/crosseyed.html

    • ed-words

      A Jewish lawyer told Scalia in court that he’d been to a lot of
      Jewish cemeteries and never seen a “secular” cross there.

  • KB

    I wrote to the Command Inspector General:

    I am writing to say that I have heard of the cross which has been erected at Camp Pendleton. I understand this is meant to be a memorial and while I do agree that Veterans and active duty military deserve our appreciation and that those fallen are deserving of remembrance, I also believe that the cross is a symbol of Christianity and violates the constitution by being placed on federally owned land. The use of a cross is not universal for remembrance or tribute, it is a specifically Christian symbol, alienating non-Christian, agnostic, humanist, and atheist soldiers, family, and friends who wish to honor these soldiers. In addition to alienating these people, it discounts the beliefs of fallen soldiers who are not Christian, but they can no longer speak for themselves. It is not right only to honor those who have given their life if they are Christian. I would hope that the marines who created this memorial can place a non-sectarian symbol or plaque at the location to memorialize the fallen soldiers, and/or move the cross to privately owned land. I would also ask you to look into the command-directed pilgrimages and sectarian prayers at the cross, which I also believe to be a violation of the constitution. Please correct these unconstitutional acts and honor all soldiers and our great country in doing so.

    I agree with Randall Hamud on this issue when he said: “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. 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.”

    Thank you for your consideration.
    KB

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    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.

    This translates into lawyers procrastinating as long as they can, then coming up with some silly, transparent rationalization like the one cited below, then procrastinating as long as they can again…

    Jay Sekulow… says the cross should stay up because it’s really just “used as a widespread and universal symbol of remembrance.”

    This is becoming the go-to rationalization, thanks to Justice Scalia and the rest of the Most Exclusive Chapter of the Knights of Columbus, aka the Supreme Court. They say the cross is a “universal” symbol not of Christianity, but of death, or of remembrance of the dead. Okay, so set them up over Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu cemeteries and see how that goes. I guess all those buildings I see around town with crosses at the top aren’t churches. They must be funeral homes, morgues and tombs. My mistake.

  • Placibo Domingo

    I’m not so sure on this one. I think a Marine Corps base might be a little different than the lawn in front of city hall. It may be governement land, but it’s not exactly public, and the soldiers live there.  I’m sure there’s a chapel on the base, and hopefully there’s a temple and a mosque, too.   As long as other types of memorials are allowed, this seems more like allowing individuals to practice and express, rather than government endorsement. Unless you’re going to ban all religious symbols from the base entirely, this may be a case of atheists having to tolerate something in the name of freedom of expression. If it was the only memorial, intended for all fallen soldiers, then yes, it would be excusionary. If it is something that a group wants to put up as a tribute to some specific christian invididuals, it might be justifiable. I think the devil (sorry) is in the details on this one.

    • Justin Miyundees

      It’s certainly easier to motivate individuals to risk their lives if they have a belief that they’re not going to die.  This is the purpose of religion – to deny that death is the end.    

      I still say Kubler-Ross provides a valid framework from which people can analyze religion- denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.  Religion allows a person to mire themselves in denial and forestall the mature attitude that brings true enlightenment.  When you’re gone, you’re gone.  Build the world up for the children if you expect any degree of immortality because the rest is bullshit (imho).

      • Justin Miyundees

        That certainly doesn’t preclude fighting for what’s right – but it does impart a certain dignity to those that fight for principle itself rather than a promise of pearly gates, a bevy of virgins or chocolate sundaes for eternity. Your average everyday atheist soldier for instance.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=593675787 Glenn Davey

    I do NOT support the troops. I hope they all die. The cross is a reminder of two things I hate very much… people who go to war, and people who pray to invisible friends.

    • Justin Miyundees

      Your attitude is inappropriate, disrespectful and ignorant.  “The troops” you so handily condemn are decent, kind, generous people not to mention my fellow citizens – a few of them are making an ill advised mistake here but it is based on the best intentions. 

      You missed a good chance to be quiet.  Before we all get painted with the brush you hand the faithful with such an ugly remark, I’m compelled to offer a retort.

    • The Captain

      Oh yes, you hate violence so much you hope people die. Fuck you and your hypocritical, ignorant, contradicting, simpleton philosophy.

      • Kevin_Of_Bangor

        Don’t feed the trolls. Just flag his comment and move on.

      • ed-words

        Let’s save the name-calling for Yahoo.

    • ed-words

      You don’t have to support the troops.

      “I hope they all die ” is a bit much.

    • Rod Chlebek

      Iraq veteran here. What exactly did I do that you want me to die?

  • L.Long

    The marines are just doing the normal xtian thing, putting up a xtian symbol so they can believe they are doing something useful while doing less then nothing.
    How about donating, and publicly encouraging others to support the troop that have survived in the names of the fallen???  Oh! Sorry! this would require them to DO something.

  • Aimster

    I live on Camp Pendleton, and I can’t believe that I haven’t heard more local conversations about this, considering the attention it’s getting on blogs! I saw an article about it on a local news website, and the comments section was filled to the brim with typical anti-atheist vitriol. If it wasn’t so maddening, it would have been downright hilarious. At any rate, I think it’s important to address something that I haven’t seen mentioned yet…probably because few people commenting actually live here and know how a large base like Pendleton functions. Some people want to give the government the benefit of the doubt here, claiming that the officials that run Camp Pendleton either didn’t actually give the ok for this or they didn’t know about it. Here’s the problem with that claim: Although I don’t know exactly where this cross is erected (it’s a BIIIIIIIIG base), I know that there are essentially two types of land here at Pendleton: occupied space, in the form of offices, barracks, support buildings, shopping facilities and housing areas, and unoccupied space, which is mostly used for firing ranges, large weapon discharging, and other training exercises. This open space, on which the cross in question is placed, is not just “anyone can roam around” space. It is cordoned off, accessed only by roads that often have gates across them when not in use. It’s very difficult, nay, I’d say impossible to just drive a vehicle into an open space and plant a cross without the official ok from someone. One runs the risk of being accidentally shot, blown up, or arrested if one just wanders into the wide open spaces of Camp Pendleton.

    In short…someone…whoever is in charge of the range / training area where this cross stands, HAD to give these veterans and widows his/her permission to BE on that land. Life on military bases is all about clearances, permission, and chains of command. I don’t buy for a minute that someone in a position of authority didn’t authorize this.

    My husband is a Marine, proudly and unselfishly serving for the last 20 years. The USMC has given us a fantastic life, but it bothers me how mainstream the Christian mindset is becoming in the every day operations of the Corps. 

    And to the person who commented that he/she hopes that there are mosques / temples on bases, in addition to Christian facilities, to accommodate Muslim and Jewish Marines, the answer is a resounding “no.” There are nondenominational “chapels” that look suspiciously like Christian churches on every base where we’ve been stationed, complete with stained glass, pews, altars, and crosses. Muslim and Jewish worshipers are usually relegated to conference rooms and other unadorned public spaces for their ceremonies. There are even allowances for Wiccans in some places, but again…they’re relegated to places like the conference room at the base library.  

    • http://not-pop-jukebox.blogspot.com legbamel

      That’s precisely what I wanted to point out: you cannot just wander onto a military base and prop the thing into place.  They had to have been given access by, if not explicit permission from, someone who should be held accountable.

    • ed-words

      Excellent. Thanks for the explanation.

  • Justin Miyundees

    Sad to say, most people learn the hard way and there have been times when I’ve been no better. I suspect that only when Christians become a minority – outnumbered probably by Muslims (heaven forbid devout ones) as is fast approaching in many parts of Europe, will they “see the light” that governments should not promote ANYONE’s fairy tale.  

  • http://www.christianfighterpilot.com/blog JD

    As has already been noted, no one is complaining about the liquor, engraved rocks, coins, dog tags, etc, that have been placed on that hill.  Where’s the outcry that the ENTIRE MEMORIAL was erected “without authorization”?

    The Marines’ decision to erect a cross is no more a government endorsement of religion than the Marines’ decision to leave a bottle of Jack equates to a government endorsement of alcohol.

    It is ridiculous to conclude the mere presence of a symbol, religious or otherwise, on government land connotes any form of government support for any ideology.

    Incidentally, Torpy has pulled out all the stops and has called for pulling a cross out of Arlington National cemetery — something the ACLU doesn’t even support.

  • Anonymous

    I hate the way Christianity gets conflated with militarism, but then again, the sword is the same shape as the cross…

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553145445 Gordon Duffy

      If the monument was a sword you would not hear any complaints.

  • Tim

    As an English athiest I find this sort of issue fascinating when it comes up in the USA.  You live in a country that is more religious than any in Europe and yet you get very exercised by this kind of “constitutional violation” which is the kind of thing that would pass without comment here in the UK.  If you want to make your country less religious there seems to be much better ways to go about it than attacking some unofficial memorial. 

    I understamd the US constitutional position and I fully support the right to Americans to defend their constitution (which is really nothing to do with me – although it does strike me as odd that you treat the constituation as if it is some sacred inviolate thing when it is just as much a human creation as any religion.  The founding fathers were smart people to be sure but they were not infallable Gods),  but I think that you guys can sometimes conflate the issues of defending the constitution and promoting atheism and secularism.  To my mind protesting this memorial falls firmly into the category of defending the constitution and it may well be the right thing to do on those grounds (and certainly fits with the huge level of respect that I think Americans have for the law), but I can’t see it being a very sucessful way of promoting atheism.  The athiesm/religion battle is fought out essentially by trying to change people’s minds and that is where you should be fighting it – I don’t think that it actually has very much to do with the Government.  In England we have an established church with our head of state, the Queen, at its head, and yet that doesn’t stop the Uk being one of the most secular places in the world.  Maybe the reverse is true and having a secular constitution doesn’t actually result in an un-religious country.  

    So defend the constituion of that is important to you, but if you want to make the country less religious you are going after the wrong targets.  It isn’t the presence of crosses that make the country religious it is what the people  think about those crosses.         

    • ed-words

      First demand your rights. Then worry about “what people think”.
      Integration in the US had no time to wait for consensus.
      As for England, you’re paying the price for your religious government.
      It seems to ignore the secularism of its constituency.

      Go Richard Dawkins!

      • Tim

        Thanks for your reply.  It really is a different way of thinking.  I think you have more faith in government than the average Brit.  Maybe that comes from greater pride and understanding of your constitution and the understanding that governement is something DONE BY the people rather than DONE TO the people.  The English approach to liberty is different.  Much more bloody-minded ignoring the law rather than trying to change it. 

        For example, all tax payer funded schools here must by law have a daily act of worship of “a substantially Christian character”.  If we had the kind of respect for the law that Americans tend to have that would be a problem.  But in reality parents don’t want it, teachers don’t want it so the law is completely ignored in 80% of schools.   Even the Church doesn;t push for it because it knows it would stir up a big fight if it tried to.  So the link between liberty and upholding the law just isn’t there.   

        Our two countries are similar in so many ways but Politically theya re very different because we never had a revolution (or rather the revolutionary Brits were the ones living in what is now the USA)

  • Mike

    It really turns me off when atheists ask for freedoms while denying certain freedoms to others. Suppose the religious man is misguided. Must we create fear in the hearts of all believers by chasing them out of the public square simply for EXPRESSING their faith? Have you any consideration for feelings of persecution you create in believing individuals?

    • Kathy Strawn

      I’m not sure what persecution atheists are creating.  Freedom of speech is freedom of speech regardless of religious or non-religious belief.  What is being challenged is state sponsored expressions of religion.  When a cross is erected on government land  it obviously violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution and should challenged and be removed.  If you want to erect a cross on your front lawn, no atheist will stop you (maybe your HOA, but not an atheist). 

      If you have read through the post on the Friendly Atheist you will see many instances of bias against atheists.  From advertising companies denying atheist messages on buses and billboards, to death threats against high school students for challenging school prayers.  Try putting the shoe on the other foot and see how it feels.

      • Mike

        Believe me when I say I understand. In a way I do know what it is like to have the shoe on the other foot because main stream christianity labeled me as being a cult member. I have since abandoned said cult, but I know what it feels like to be marginalized. I have questioned my faith a great deal and I understand the atheist position much more deeply than I used to. I think my disagreement comes with endorsement vs enforcement. In my view the government can endorse whatever it wants as long as what it “enforces” is not shoving one’s religion or non-religion on people. The cross should not bother anyone in legal terms . . . atheists are not being forced to have a cross on their front lawn. It is a public area . . .where ALL expressions should be allowed. This would make everyone much happier. I understand class rooms are a special problem because everyone HAS TO be in THAT class. But . . . to the point . . . I sympathize with you. Believe me when I say that I dislike prejudice in the world whether it is religious or not. No one deserves to have death threats thrown at them or be sensored simply for having a different point of view. You know why I am questioning my Christianity?  Because God appears to be ok with abortion . . . when there is genocide . . . I’m questioning my Christianity BECAUSE I’m pro life!!!!

      • Mike

        I heartily condemn those “christians” that have censored and thrown death threats at people.

    • Rod Chlebek

      “…atheists ask for freedoms while denying certain freedoms”
      I agree. Let’s have your list of them.

  • Mike

    I would hold the feet of those who shove their religion down peoples throtes to the same fire. Free speech is free speech. . . period.

    • Rod Chlebek

      Free speech is for people. It does not include government endorsements.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553145445 Gordon Duffy

    Can you imagine if we were the ones claiming that “the cross is not a symbol of christianity” what kind of outcry we would get?

    The fact is that if christians really thought the people saying this *meant it* they would lynch them.

    But if it is a nod and a wink excuse to have crosses in classrooms on on private land well then sure, let’s play along. It is not a symbol of christianity, wink.

    • Rod Chlebek

      Haha. Yeah, like the Moon and Star is not a symbol of Islam. Let’s put that up there. Wink.

  • DKLL52

    Atheists will find God at their death bed… until then leave this memorial alone… it is another disgusting attempt to get attention using this memorial to spout your cause. 

    these people die to protect your freedom to be whoever or whatever you want to be… leave these people alone

  • harleyman

    To those friendly atheist who think that the crosses in question should be taken down I say to you perhaps 30 days at Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp will change your minds. . . . . . . . . .                    I AM ALSO SURE THAT THE BASE COMMANDER ALSO SHARES MY VIEWS!
               U.S.M.C. 1969 to 1973 

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      So you’re honestly suggesting imprisonment for everyone who disagrees with you?  How Un-American can you possibly get?

  • Smokinbop55

    maybe we should not allow the atheists symbol to be placed on markers at arlington national cemetary … could this be government promotion of atheists.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Peter-Stella/1178796923 Peter Stella

    The Truth is that Jason and the The Atheists are asking that no respect is given for “The Free Expression There of” Sorry but hat is the Law. 


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X