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Editorial

Crosses and the Constitution

The pair of large crosses on Camp Pendleton do more than just serve as memorials to fallen Marines. They unconstitutionally evoke one religion over others, on public land.

January 04, 2012
  • Scott Radetski, 49, a retired Navy Chaplain, Sgt. Justin Rettenberger, 31, (obscured) and Sgt. Josue Magana, 32, dedicate a cross on top of a mountain on Veterans Day that overlooks the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton.
Scott Radetski, 49, a retired Navy Chaplain, Sgt. Justin Rettenberger,… (Los Angeles Times )

The military, like any other government agency, cannot allow people to install large religious symbols wherever they want on public property. Once in place for any length of time, those symbols (and usually that means a cross) tend to be seen as established markers, and proposals to remove them are wrongly viewed as anti-religion and, specifically, anti-Christian.

That's what has happened yet again after two large crosses were set on a hill at Camp Pendleton. One was erected in 2003 by Marines who would later be killed in the Iraq war. That cross burned down in 2007 but was replaced a year later. Pendleton higher-ups should have foreseen that allowing the crosses to stay would have led to another one, placed there two months ago on Veterans Day without permission. Now groups that advocate for the separation of church and state are complaining that the crosses should come down, while others are arguing for them to remain as a memorial to Marines who have died.

The cross is widely used in this country to commemorate the dead; in Camp Pendleton, the hill adorned with crosses has become a cherished spot for men and women in uniform to honor their fallen comrades, bringing notes, dog tags and other memorabilia. But the fact remains that the cross is an inherently religious symbol. Those who claim it is merely a sign of mourning, not one that evokes one religion over others, should imagine how they would feel if a symbol of Islam or Judaism were placed on the hillside instead.

Ironically, there's another large cross on the Camp Pendleton base — one that many of the Marines there don't even know about — that does have legitimate reason to exist on its own. At the northern end of the camp, a white cross was planted on a bluff to mark the site of the spring below it where the first baptism in California is believed to have taken place in 1769. In that case, the public interest is historic, and the history is inextricably interwoven with Christianity.

That's not the situation with the two newer crosses at the Marine base, which shouldn't have been allowed without a plan for a more universal memorial site. One course of action that would allow the new crosses to remain would be to invite Marines of other religious beliefs to add their own symbols to the hill. That would ensure the separation of church and state while also being sensitive to the sense of loss suffered by those in the armed services. It would create a place where all people in uniform can remember the sacrifices made by so many.

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