An atheist group is clashing with U.S. marines at Camp Pendleton in California. The group, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF), is demanding that a cross that was put up on the base to commemorate fallen soldiers be removed.
In recent months, the MAAF has made a splash by taking on Christian themes in the military and championing atheism in the U.S. Armed Forces. Led by Jason Torpy, who was a West Point graduate and who fought in Iraq, the group seems to be following along the same somewhat antagonistic path as the Freedom From Religion Foundation, among other "freethinking" groups.
Recently, Torpy also came out in support of the installment of atheist military chaplains, an interesting proposal considering the notion that it would require non-believers to register as a faith group of sorts.
The latest drama surrounding the Christian symbol unfolded when, on Veterans Day, Marines erected a 13-foot cross to commemorate the lives of their comrades who perished in Iraq. Staff Sgt. Justin Rettenberger, one of the four individuals who is responsible for erecting the cross, explains that the memorial was done to honor Maj. Douglas Zembiec, Maj. Ray Mendoza, Lance Cpl. Aaron Austin and Lance Cpl. Robert Zurheide.
The L.A. Times documented the cross' placement at the military base:
"We wanted them all to know that they'll always be in our hearts, that they'll never be forgotten," Rettenberger told the Los Angeles Times.
But Torpy, though he understands the urge to remember the lost, says that, because of its placement on federal lands, the cross simply isn't appropriate. While he claims he typically doesn't get involved in issues like this, some of his atheist members who serve at Pendleton have asked him to intervene.
"In a lot of ways this is commendable – they're honoring friends who were probably Christian," Torpy said. "I think the memorial is appropriate for the individuals who put it up and the friends they're honoring, but you just can't walk onto federal land and do it."
While he says he doesn't want to be the bad guy, he says that he shouldn't be the only one standing up in opposition to the cross. It "privileges one religion over another," he says, going on to claim that "[Camp Pendleton} should have known better."
The L.A. Times has an excellent slideshow that documents the cross' story.
Pendleton released a statement saying that the four Marines who put the cross up were not acting in "any official position or capacity" and that the Department of Defense and the U.S. Marine Corps were not endorsing the cross. Torpy, though, says that the religious symbol should have been prevented from being placed on federal land.
According to FOX News, there's been some strong reaction to atheists demands that the cross be removed. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and a former marine, is frustrated over what he sees as "radical" attacks on the military.
“It’s really outrageous and it shows the hostile environment that’s been created by this (Obama) administration towards religious freedom,” he says. “At some point, we have to say, enough is enough.”
Currently, officials are reviewing the situation to determine the appropriateness of the cross' placement on federal lands.