Saturday, November 26, 2011

Memorial for fallen Marines or endorsement of religion?

The LA Times reported this week that leadership in the Marines is considering removing a large cross from Camp Pendleton in California. Camp Pendleton serves as the Marine Corps' primary west coast base and amphibious training facility. Upon learning of the 13-foot cross, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers filed a complaint with base officials, arguing that the cross violates the establishment clause of the constitution. On the other side, the American Center for Law and Justics (ACLJ) has asked that the cross be allowed to remain.

There is context to the cross that complicates matters. In 2003, a group of Marines put a first cross up that burned down in a brush fire in 2007. The new cross was put up on Veterans Day of this year to memorialize four Marines who had passed, three of whom were a part of the group that put up the original cross. Carrying the cross up the large hill and and raising it were not officially sanctioned Marine activities, but rather were an individual effort of a retired Marine chaplain and few friends and widows of the Marines that had died.

I do not believe this cross violates the establishment clause. The important question here is whether or not a reasonable person would think that the presence of the cross constitutes a government endorsement of religion. There are two reasons why I don't think this would be the case. I should qualify my answer with the condition that if any other religious symbol (within reason) were put up in a similar situation, I assume the Marines would treat it the same way as the cross, and my answer would be the same for those as well.

First, the video referred to in the article shows the cross and its location - it is quite remote. From atop the hill, you can see some buildings of the Marine Base, but other than that, it's not clear that anyone at all can actually see the crosses. Given the fact that the land on which the cross stands is both hard to see and hard to get to (one assumes not just anyone can walk into a Marine Corps training base), it seems to me that there would be no effect on the general public.

Second, the raising of the cross was the effort of a few people - not in an official event - to memorialize their fallen friends. Their friends had put up a similar cross eight years prior, and in their honor, a group of Marines and a retired Marine Chaplain decided to re-raise the cross. On top of the informality of the event, the cross itself is hardly ornate. While large, it is not bronze, granite, or any other permanent material, but it appears to be just painted wood. There is no plaque; there are only a few emblems from the uniforms of the Marines and a few folded American flags.

What do you think? It is undisputed that there is a religious symbol on government property. But given the personal meaning of the cross to about a dozen or so Marines, the non-permanent nature of the cross (the first one did burn down, after all), and the remote location of the cross, is this something that needs to be scrutinized?


Harry R. said...

I believe that the memorial aspect of the cross as well as the placement by individual marines supports the continued presence of the cross. The cross is strictly memorial and in no way coerces bystanders to support a specific religion. This lack of coercion is supported by the remote placement of the monument. Also, since the cross was placed by individual marines, that distances the government from endorsement of the monument.

Elena T said...

This is not an establishment of religion by the government. To me the cross is a memorial for those marines who passed. Having this cross present is a testament to their service, and I feel out of respect for the marines and their remembrance this cross is constitutional.

Ally R said...

The cross was not placed on the Marine base with religious connotation, but rather respect for the deceased. There is a history behind the cross, and as long as nobody is forced into maintaining the cross, and the land it has been placed upon, I do not see this as an establishment of religion. I feel that recently the cross has diverted from being a religious symbol, to a symbol of respect. We see crosses on the sides of roads where people have passed away in car accidents quite regularly serving as memorials, not as promotions of Christianity and I feel that this cross serves this same reason with equal purpose.

Callie B said...

I agree that this is not an establishment of religion however, I am curious as to whether the base would accept any Marine memorial by private funds. If they are to accept a cross for certain deceased Marines, it seems that they would have to accept any variety of a religious memorial to deceased Marines. As long as the base doesn't pick and choose what memorials they accept, it is constitutional.