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Marines reviewing whether to let Camp Pendleton cross stay

An atheist group has complained about the memorial, saying it violates separation of church and state.

November 22, 2011|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
  • A 13-foot, fire-resistant cross is carried to its destination on a hill in Camp Pendleton.
A 13-foot, fire-resistant cross is carried to its destination on a hill… (Rick Loomis, Los Angeles…)

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.

The 13-foot cross was erected on Veterans Day as a memorial to four Marines killed in combat in Iraq and to veterans in general.

Three of the four dead Marines had been part of a group that had erected a cross on the same spot in 2003 before deploying to Iraq. That cross was destroyed by a brush fire in 2007.

After an article about the new cross appeared in The Times, the Military Assn. of Atheists and Freethinkers protested to base officials that the cross violates the separation of church and state required by the Constitution.

An opposing group, the American Center for Law & Justice, has asked the Marine Corps to let the cross remain.

The raising of the cross was not an official or sanctioned Marine Corps activity but rather a private undertaking by Marines and a retired Navy chaplain who served with the four Marines.

Lance Cpl. Aaron Austin and Lance Cpl. Robert Zurheide were killed during the battle for Fallouja in 2004. Maj. Ray Mendoza was killed in Al Qaim in 2005 and Maj. Douglas Zembiec in Baghdad in 2007. The widows of Zurheide and Mendoza helped in hauling the cross up the hill.

"Camp Pendleton legal authorities are researching and reviewing the issue in order to make a judicious decision," the Marine Corps said in a statement released Monday. "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."

tony.perry@latimes.com

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