A thirteen foot tall cross atop a mountain near Camp Horno on the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base in California has become the source of much controversy over the past few weeks, sparked by a Los Angeles Times article about a group of Marines erecting the cross on Veterans Day.
The cross put up this Veterans Day is actually the third cross to adorn this hill. The original cross, erected by a group of Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment in 2003 was destroyed in 2007 by a brush fire. That cross was then replaced in early 2008 with a second cross. The cross erected earlier this month is a fire-proof replacement of the second cross, which was also made of wood like the original one destroyed by the fire.
In virtually all cases like this -- whether its a Ten Commandments monument in a courthouse or a cross on a military base -- you'll hear the same few talking points coming from those who claim that religious neutrality by the government is somehow tantamount to persecution of Christians. I call these the "Persecuted Christians Myths," and here's how they relate to that thirteen foot tall cross at Camp Pendleton.
Persecuted Christians Myth #1 -- Nobody is being forced to look at it
Well, in the case of the Camp Pendleton cross, this is certainly not true. From postings on message boards from Marines at Pendleton who say that they can see it from their office windows to commanders boasting about its visibility, it is clear that this cross is intended to be seen by everybody, whether they want to look at it or not.
Just read the 2009 article that appeared on the official Marine Corps website, which began:
"Although many Marines may not know where the heart and soul of 1st Marine Regiment is, they have two ways to find it: either look far off behind Camp Horno or run up the hill and see it firsthand.
"'It's the biggest hill around here,' said Sgt. Parker C. Vaculik, a reconnaissance Marine with Company B, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division. 'Really, by coming up here, you are killing two birds with one stone. You're exercising and you're showing your respect to the fallen.'- Advertisement -
"'If you look way up to the top of the hill, you will see a cross,' said Col. Daniel J. O'Donohue, the commanding officer of 1st Marine Regiment. 'It is the heart of 1st Marines. It's a monument put up by Marines for Marines.'"
And, it's not just that this cross is visible from various areas of the base. It goes far beyond that. The cross is the destination of many mandatory training hikes, forcing countless Marines of all religions and no religion not only to visit it, but to participate in the rituals that have grown up around it and to listen, often in formation, to Christian prayers and sermons delivered by their superiors.
This completely inappropriate and unconstitutional practice has been going on since the original cross was erected in 2003, and has been well documented in articles on the official Marine Corps website, such as this one from 2005, and this one from 2006.
To fully grasp what occurs during these mandatory hikes, just watch this video from one that took place in 2008.
That's not a chaplain delivering that Christian sermon (beginning at 3:36 in the video); that was the battalion's sergeant major, Jeffrey D. Moses, and the Marine speaking right before him was the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Benjamin T. Watson. Get that? The superiors that a non-Christian or non-religious Marine should be able to go to when they have an issue with being forced to participate in religious exercises are the ones who are leading these forced religious exercises. Is it any wonder that so many service members say that they can't go to their chains of command to resolve these issues and instead come to organizations like the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF)?
Persecuted Christians Myth #2 -- The "lone atheist troublemaker"