By Simon Brown
The United States military is highly diverse. According to a 2010 analysis, many different Christian denominations are represented in the ranks, but some personnel are Humanist, Jewish, Muslim, Pagan or followers of other traditions. One survey found that as many as 25 percent cited no religious preference at all.
Thus, when a group of marines at Camp Pendleton erected a large cross on their California base as an unofficial memorial to soldiers wounded or killed in combat, they left out a lot of their comrades. A cross may honor Christian service personnel who died, but it doesn’t include those of other faiths and those who follow no spiritual path at all.
When Americans United found out about the religious symbol, we, along with the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, sent a letter to military officials raising constitutional issues.
“While we understand and sympathize with these soldiers’ desire to memorialize fallen comrades, the erection of a permanent Christian cross on government property raises serious constitutional concerns,” the letter said. “Even assuming that the soldiers who erected the cross display were off-duty or no longer active military, allowing a prominent display of a large cross to remain on government property will still communicate to the service members on the base that Camp Pendleton endorses the cross’s Christian message.”
Marine Corps lawyers are still deciding how to respond to the complaints, and a Camp Pendleton spokeswoman has said that it is unclear when a decision will be reached, according to an article in the North County Times (Escondido, Calif.).
As usual, though, some people just don’t get it.
According to the North County Times, former Navy chaplain Scott Radetski, who helped erect the cross, said, “I would be bummed [if it's removed]. It was a gift for the troops…and I think it's an overreaction on the part of those who are opposed.” (He also said he believes the original group that put up the cross received permission from Camp Pendleton officials.)
It is most certainly not an overreaction. Sectarian symbols should not be erected on government property in a way that suggests one faith has special government approval.
There is no reason that service personnel can’t do something to memorialize dead and wounded friends, but there is also no reason that they can’t find a way to do it without using a sectarian symbol that leaves out a lot of their comrades.