SAN DIEGO, Calif. A ruling on a pair of crosses located on a hill above Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton is not expected until later. An atheist group is demanding that the crosses be removed.
The controversy began shortly after Veterans Day when several Marines erected a 13-foot cross in honor of the Marines killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Marines were replacing the original cross put up in 2003 that was burned down in a brush fire in 2007.
Staff Sgt. Justin Rettenberger said the cross is dedicated to the memory of four Marines killed in battle, according to the LA Times. "We wanted them all to know that they'll always be in our hearts, that they'll never be forgotten," he said. "All great warriors."
The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF) said the cross is unconstitutional. In a blog post, the MAAF said, "We still have continuing exploitation of military service and veterans to promote Christian privilege." The placement of the cross, the MAAF contends, "sends a message of exclusion rather than inclusion on this secular holiday."
In defense of the cross, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) has urged the Marines to keep the cross in place.
"The Constitution does not prohibit honoring fallen troops through the use of a historic symbol merely because that symbol also carries religious significance. In fact, the Constitution forbids excluding religion from every aspect of public life, precisely the goal of the MAAF and other atheist groups," said Jay Sekulow, ACLJ attorney in a letter to Colonel Nicholas F. Marano, Commanding Officer at the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.
"Given the memorial's history and context, it is clear that it is not intended to proselytize for any faith," the letter states. "It is meant to honor and commemorate the sacrifice of those who have given the ultimate sacrifice."
Elena Zurheide and her son, who was killed in action in Fallujah, Iraq in 2004, were with the Marines that put up the cross on Veteran's Day. The widow has joined the fight to defend the crosses.
According to the Thomas More Law Center in a letter to Colonel Marano, the memorial cross holds deep significance and is forever attached to the memory of their loved ones.
"A cross is recognized as a universal symbol of self-sacrifice," Charles Limandri, an attorney for the Thomas More Law Center, told 10News San Diego. "To remove it desecrates the memory of these people."
Zurheide's husband, Lance Corporal Robert P. Zurheide, and six other Marines put up the first cross. Four of the original seven Marines have since died.