By Marty Graham
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - Two crosses on a mountaintop in a California military base have touched off a fight between U.S. troops and veterans opposed to religious symbols on public lands and the families of slain Marines who set up the display.
The two 13-foot (4-meter) crosses stand 3,000 feet above sea level on the dry and scrub-covered Mount San Onofre at Camp Pendleton, in the far northwest part of the Marine Corps base near San Diego.
Bottles of liquor, dog tags, pictures and other mementos sit at the foot of each cross, placed there by Marines who visit to remember comrades killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"They go up there and remember their fallen brethren, carrying a rock and taking the steepest route to sacrifice a little for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice," said Captain Kendra Hardesty, a Marine Corps spokeswoman.
But the secular watchdog group Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which claims more than 27,000 members and is headed by 10-year Air Force veteran Mikey Weinstein, has asked the crosses be removed.
"Our goal is to support the Constitution, which mandates separation of church and state, and to support all members of our Armed Forces including those who are not fundamentalist Christians," Weinstein said.
"The crosses should be replaced with something that can honor all those who gave up their lives for our country, not just the Christians among them," he said.
Hardesty, a member of the Pentagon-based group reviewing the matter, said a decision was expected within two to three weeks.
"SYMBOL OF THE SACRIFICE"
Seven Marines carried the original cross to the top of the mountain, which can only be seen from the base roads, in 2003 to honor fallen Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment.
Four of those seven Marines have since died in action, including Lance Corporal Robert Zurheide, who was killed in Iraq's Al Anbar province the following year.
The original cross was destroyed during wildfires in 2007 and was replaced in 2008 by a group including Zurheide's widow, Elena, and young son.
"It is not an attempt to establish religion but a symbol of the sacrifice, the ultimate sacrifice these Marines have made," said Richard Thompson, an attorney for Elena Zurheide.
Marines routinely make the steep trek up to the crosses, first putting in their backpacks a rock and other mementos to leave there, Hardesty said.
Last year a group of Marines hauled a fire-resistant cross up to the mountaintop and placed it up next to the cross installed in 2008. Within days, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation asked that both crosses be removed and replaced with a non-religious memorial.
"We want to make sure we're making a right decision for the Marine Corps," Hardesty said.
The panel she sits on is reviewing recommendations, which have not been made public, from top officials at Camp Pendleton.
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Xavier Briand)