Context Matters with the Camp Pendleton Crosses


Matthew Clark

April 18, 2012

4 min read

American Heritage



The “controversy” over two wooden crosses that stand high atop a hill in the middle of Camp Pendleton must be put into context. And context, especially when the Establishment Clause has been called into question, matters.

In 2003, seven Marines made the trek up the steep hill where the crosses now stand and erected a symbol of sacrifice in honor of their comrades who valiantly fought and died for our nation in Iraq. Late last year Marines once again erected a wooden cross to replace the first that had burned down in a wildfire several years earlier.

Since those seven Marines first erected a cross, four of them have given their lives in service to their country.

Today, two crosses stand high atop this hill in the center of Camp Pendleton, honoring those Marines and many others. Marines and loved ones who have lost family members in Iraq and Afghanistan take the steep climb up the hill to pay their respects to those they have lost and place mementoes at the base of these crosses.

In nearly ten years, there has not been a single complaint about this cross – and never from the Marines at Camp Pendleton – until that is nearly 3,000 miles away in his Washington, DC office, one atheist read a newspaper article about the memorial. Jason Torpy, a former Army Captain and president of the Military Association of Atheists and Free Thinkers, took umbrage to this cross, without even seeing it, and demanded that it be removed.

As Marine Colonel Nick Marano noted, “it was just intended to be able to provide a fitting and a dignified memorial to their fallen comrades,” and many veterans, widows, siblings, and children who lost loved ones fighting for our nation have found solace in its symbol of sacrifice. Yet, one atheist who hasn’t seen it and isn’t even a Marine claims to be offended and wants it removed. Can this possibly be what our Founders intended to prevent when they wrote in the Constitution that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”?

The simple and obvious answer to this question is: Of course not. As the ACLJ wrote in a letter to the Commanding Officer of Camp Pendleton, “Courts have interpreted this to mean that the Government may not “endorse” one religion over another.” The Supreme Court has held that the key to determining whether a cross such as this is a government endorsement of religion is to view it not from the perspective of an anti-religious activist like Torpy, but from the perspective of a “reasonable observer.” The “reasonable observer” is someone who is “aware of the history and context of the community and forum in which the religious display appears.”

Justice O’Connor specifically addressed the Torpys of the world when she wrote, “There is always someone who . . . might perceive a particular action as an endorsement of religion.” She went on to address this exact situation, “[T]he endorsement inquiry is not about the perceptions of particular individuals or saving isolated nonadherents from the discomfort of viewing symbols of a faith to which they do not subscribe.”

It was in this case, Capitol Square Review & Advisory Bd. v. Pinette, where the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a cross on public property.

The “reasonable observer” would be aware of the long military history and nearly universal use of crosses as a symbol of sacrifice to honor those who have lost their lives, at Arlington National Cemetery for example.

As our letter to Camp Pendleton clearly states:

[T]he Constitution does not prohibit honoring fallen troops through the use of an historic symbol merely because that symbol also carries religious significance. . . . Crosses are an apt, appropriate, and constitutionally permissible means of honoring and commemorating the sacrifice of those who have given their life for their comrades and their country.

With a decision expected any day from the Commandant of the Marines on the Camp Pendleton crosses, now is the time to join the more than 45,000 American’s who have signed the Petition to Protect the Cross.