Uniformity means the military has rules for everything, from how to position your feet when at attention—heels together, toes pointed at a 45-degree angle—to the display of religious symbols inside base chapels. Especially religious symbols. Military regulations do not allow them (whether crucifixes, Stars of David, crescents or any other icons) permanently displayed inside chapels, so one would think the answer to a question about displaying the same symbols on military bases would be a no-brainer.
But Navy and Marine Corps lawyers have been scratching their heads to find a rule—if there is one—about displaying a religious symbol on the base because of the controversy stirred by a Los Angeles Times article published on Veterans Day about a 13-foot cross planted atop a Camp Pendleton hill. The structure replaced one put up in 2008 that in turn replaced one planted in 2003 but later destroyed. Longtime San Diego bureau chief Tony Perry and Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Rick Loomis wrote that civilians and active-duty marines placed the Christian symbol to specifically honor four marines killed in Iraq and generally pay tribute to all U.S. military personnel—in other words, it was ostensibly a war memorial. Critics immediately cried foul and demanded its removal from the base because it violated the sacrosanct separation of church and state.
The Times enjoys a friendly relationship with Camp Pendleton and reported the event exclusively. Curiously, Perry and Loomis didn't address the church-and-state question—not even the obligatory request for comment from the ACLU—in the original story. This was an odd lapse because Perry has also covered the decades-long debate over a cross on Mt. Soledad in San Diego, which also sits on Pentagon property. Last January, he reported that a federal appeals court ruled the cross unconstitutional, handing a victory to the ACLU and other plaintiffs. Despite claims it was a war memorial honoring veterans of all faiths, the court ruled the cross was primarily a Christian symbol.
H.G. Reza worked at the Los Angeles Times for 25 years, 14 of them in Orange County. He was an Army combat infantryman in Vietnam with MACV Advisory Team 3, assigned to a six-man U.S. team that lived and fought with a South Vietnamese militia company.
San Diego attorney Randall B. Hamud, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State all questioned the constitutionality of the Camp Pendleton cross and asked the base's commanding officer, Colonel Nicholas Marano, to order it removed. Hamud wrote in an opinion piece for the San Diego Union-Tribune that the cross "violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution—the very Constitution for which those four fallen marines—and all of our fallen military personnel in all our wars—sacrificed their lives."
Instead of making a command decision, though, Marano punted to military lawyers. He equivocated, though base officials insisted they hadn't authorized the erection of the cross, had no knowledge it was being transported to the base and that those behind it were civilians. But if their Sergeant Schultz-like explanation is true, it raises serious questions about base security. Apparently, Marine sentries allowed a civilian, with a Times photographer in tow, to drive a truck with a 13-foot cross in its bed onto the base without question. While Navy and Marine lawyers ponder the Pendleton cross, the Army ordered a cross removed from outside a base chapel in Afghanistan a few days after the Times article ran. Here, the rationale was simple: It violated Army regulations prohibiting the permanent display of religious symbols.
So far, there are no reports that the Taliban or al-Qaeda is using the Times story about the Pendleton cross as propaganda. But a story that Perry reported about another event at the base filled with Christian symbolism ended up on a terrorist website that translates and distributes jihadist propaganda and instructional materials. The English-language Ansar al-Mujahideen Web Forum serves to "promote the mission" of al-Qaeda and is a "key beacon for lone-wolf extremists," reported the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point in a 2010 article in its Sentinel publication. Ansar posted Perry's August 2010 story about a mass baptism of marines in the ocean off Camp Pendleton before they deployed to Afghanistan.
That Times story included an official Marine Corps photo of a chaplain and an assistant baptizing a young marine. The religious rite was also reported days earlier in a online Marine publication; the Times' piece included identical quotes from two sources quoted in the Marine publication, which ran the same photo it made available to the Times. Ansar ran the Times' story and accompanying photo without comment and unchanged except for a new headline slapped on by the editors: "Crusaders Baptized Before Leaving for Afghanistan."
The Times has given favorable coverage to the cross, writing about it in four stories. What its reporting hasn't done is question the cause of the people advocating for it. The claim that the Pendleton cross is a war memorial, not a religious symbol, is challenged by a 2008 official Marine Corps video on YouTube that shows at least one company of uniformed marines hauling a cross up a hill in what appears to be an officially sanctioned event, carrying the cross that was replaced by the Veterans Day cross. In the video, a female civilian accompanying the marines explains they are carrying it to "be as close as possible to God," pointedly contradicting the public pronouncements the Times reports without skepticism (the woman in the video was also involved in the Veterans Day event). Another YouTube video from 2008, titled "3/1 Memorial March," shows marines from the 3rd Battalion 1st Marine Regiment marching up the hill to gather around the cross as a senior, non-commissioned officer reads from Scripture.
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It's impossible to know if all the marines in the videos are Christians, or if they willingly marched up the hill to a ceremony that had religious meaning. What's certain is that teamwork and conformity, not individuality, are ingrained in military doctrine. So it's doubtful a non-Christian or non-believer would complain to a squad leader or platoon sergeant about being forced to attend a Christian religious ceremony—or, for that matter, a Christian who didn't approve of being taken to Jesus without his or her consent. Getting tagged as not being a team player is as bad as being branded the one in the squad who can't be depended on when you walk into the shit.
I haven't had a reason to review the American fighting man's Code of Conduct recently. But 45 years ago, it began with the purpose that "I serve in the forces which guard my country and our way of life" and ended with "I will trust in my God and in the United States of America." It did not say, "God who is symbolized by a Christian cross."
This article appeared in print as "Crossing Over: How the Los Angeles Times' cozy relationship with Camp Pendleton hampers its coverage of religious controversies on the base."