But after a news story about the memorial went public in a human interest story, a group calling itself the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF) contacted Pendleton officials and demanded that the memorial be dismantled because of the religious symbols involved. “These Christian crosses need to go to a private Christian instillation [sic] and we need to stick to things that honor everyone equally and maintain neutrality towards government,” declared MAAF president Jason Torpy.
Reported Fox News: “For 10 years, the crosses have stood on the hill without complaint, but the MAAF says if they don’t come down soon, it will file a lawsuit and possibly hold protests outside the Marine base gates. Torpy says the original Marines, while good-intentioned, overstepped their bounds by building a shrine without approval or notice from the Corps. ‘These Marines were abusing their access to the installation when they went on to it and starting building things,’ says Torpy.”
The MAAF has been joined in the assault against the memorial by the atheist Military Religious Freedom Foundation, whose founder Mikey Weinstein insisted that the crosses must go. “Our goal is to support the Constitution, which mandates separation of church and state, and to support all members of our Armed Forces including those who are not fundamentalist Christians,” Weinstein told Reuters News. “The crosses should be replaced with something that can honor all those who gave up their lives for our country, not just the Christians among them.”
Staff Sergeant Justin Rettenberger, who was part of the team that erected the replacement crosses, told the Los Angeles Times that they did it as a gesture to their fallen conrades, and not as a religious statement. “We wanted them all to know that they’ll always be in our hearts, that they’ll never be forgotten,” said Rettenberger, who was wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan but re-enlisted for another tour.
He told the Times that the crosses were dedicated to the memories of Major Douglas Zembiec, Major Ray Mendoza, Lance Corporal Aaron Austin, and Lance Ccorporal Robert Zurheide. “All great warriors,” he said.
Reported the Times: “Austin and Zurheide were killed in Fallouja in 2004; Mendoza was killed in 2005 while leading Marines into combat near the Syrian border; Zembiec was killed in 2007 while leading a raid on insurgents in Baghdad.”
Among those accompanying the new, fire-retardant replacement cross that was placed at the site last November were Zurheide’s widow, Elena, Mendoza’s widow, Karen, Mendoza’s two children, and Zurheide’s son, born after his father’s death. Helping to carry the cross and secure it in place was retired Navy chaplain Scott Radetski, who had officiated at Zembiec’s funeral. “Radetski made sure the cross was carried rather than brought by a vehicle,” reported the Times. “The trip took two hours. Carrying the cross, he said, makes the symbolism to Marines at Camp Pendleton more profound: The fallen are never forgotten, the mission never falters. ‘We wanted it to be very moto,’ said Radetski, using Marine slang for ‘motivational.’ ”
Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative legal advocacy group that is going to bat for the memorial, said that the atheist group does not have a legal leg to stand on in demanding the removal of the crosses. “The Constitution does not prohibit honoring fallen troops through the use of a historic symbol merely because that symbol also carries religious significance,” Sekulow explained. “In fact, the Constitution forbids excluding religion from every aspect of public life — precisely the goal of the MAAF and other atheist groups.”
Lat year Sekulow and other ACLJ attorneys sent a letter to Camp Pendleton’s commanding officer at the time, Colonel Nicolas Marano, offering a detailed explanation of how crosses have been used universally in other memorials and are not a violation of the Second Amendment’s Establishment Clause. “Given the memorial’s history and context, it is clear that it is not intended to proselytize for any faith,” the ACLJ attorneys stated. “It is meant to honor and commemorate the sacrifice of those who have given the ultimate sacrifice.” They added that 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.”
Marine widow Karen Mendoza told Fox News that the memorial site is “not a religious spot at all. It’s a place for the Marines to grieve and to grow, to let go of their burdens of what they had in their soul, so they can go back down that hill and back into battle and put their own lives on the line.” Mendoza’s husband Ray was one of the seven who planted the original crosses, and who was later killed in action. “It’s a symbol of sacrifice, regardless of what you think, pray, like or don’t like,” she said of the memorial.
In order to reach the memorial, those wishing to honor fallen comrades or family members must climb 3,000 feet of rugged terrain, and many who make the trek to place mementos at the site say the difficulty of the climb is part of the sacrifice they make for the fallen. Colonel Marano, now retired, agreed that those who erected the memorial did not mean for it to be religious. “It was just intended to be able to provide a fitting and a dignified memorial to their fallen comrades, and frankly controversy was the very last thing on their minds,” he told Fox News.
He added that other religious emblems, such as a Buddhist shrine, would no doubt be welcomed. “No one would complain at all, and I bet if we poked around, we’d probably find something like that here,” he said. “I mean, you can see a very wide variety of items have been used, everything from a bottle of Jack Daniels to a Purple Heart and everything in between. I think most Americans are very fair-minded and see this memorial, frankly, for what it is.”
Marine officials said they will make a decision on the future of the memorial in the next few days. “Camp Pendleton legal authorities are researching and reviewing the issue in order to make a judicious decision,” the Marine Corps said in a statement April 16. “As Marines, we are proud to honor our fallen brothers and are also proud of our extended Marine Corps family. “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 ACLJ’s Jay Sekulow hopes the Marines will not cave in to the atheist bluster. “We are hopeful the Marines won’t be swayed by this atheist group and its flawed view of the Constitution,” he said. “We urge the Marines to keep the cross[es] in place. The display is not only appropriate, it is constitutional as well.”