Secularism Prevails in L.A. County Seal Ruling

In a long-awaited ruling, a federal judge has sided with plaintiffs who argued it was unconstitutional for Los Angeles County supervisors to place a Christian cross on the county seal.

By Abby Sewell

In a long-awaited ruling, a federal judge has sided with plaintiffs who argued it was unconstitutional for Los Angeles County supervisors to place a Christian cross on the county seal.

A divided Board of Supervisors voted in 2014 to reinstate the cross on top of a depiction of the San Gabriel Mission, which appears on the seal among other symbols of county history. They were sued by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and a group of religious leaders and scholars, who said placement of the cross on the seal unconstitutionally favored Christianity over other religions.

A decade earlier, the county had removed a cross from the seal -- this one shown floating above the Hollywood Bowl -- after being threatened with a similar lawsuit. The proponents of reinstating the cross on the seal argued it was needed to make the image of the mission historically and architecturally accurate. When the seal was redesigned in 2004, there was no cross on top of the mission, as it had gone missing during earthquake retrofitting. The cross was later restored atop the building.

In a 55-page ruling released Thursday, U.S. District Judge Christina A. Snyder wrote that the addition of the cross "carries with it an aura of prestige, authority, and approval. By singling out the cross for addition to the seal, the county necessarily lends its prestige and approval to a depiction of one faith's sectarian imagery.

"The county also provides a platform for broadcasting that imagery on county buildings, vehicles, flags, and stationary.... Permitting such a change and the associated expenditure of public funds places the county's power, prestige, and purse behind a single religion, Christianity, without making any such benefit available on an equal basis to those with secular objectives or alternative sectarian views."

Snyder noted that other objects depicted on the seal, including the Hollywood Bowl, were also not depicted accurately.

The ruling had been a long time in coming. The two sides made their arguments before the judge in November.

County spokesman David Sommers said county officials were reviewing the ruling and could not comment.

But the two county supervisors who led the push to reinstate the cross criticized the judge's decision, pointing out that other California municipalities -- including Ventura and San Benito counties and the city of San Luis Obispo -- depict missions with crosses on their seal.

Supervisor Don Knabe, who voted to reinstate the cross, along with Michael D. Antonovich and Mark Ridley-Thomas, said in a statement, "I am disappointed by the Court's ruling, which seems to me to be more about political expediency than the core of what this issue is -- ensuring the historical accuracy of the Los Angeles County seal."

Antonovich said the ruling "ignores historical and architectural reality" and voiced support for appealing the decision.

"The court failed to see that the Board corrected the inaccurate depiction of the San Gabriel Mission on the seal with an architecturally accurate version that featured a small cross -- which of course the mission has," he said in a statement. "As any California fourth-grade student knows, the San Gabriel Mission is an important icon to the region and the birthplace of Los Angeles County."

Ridley-Thomas declined to comment.

Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, and Linda M. Burrow, with the private law firm Caldwell, Leslie & Proctor, which joined in representing the plaintiffs, said in a statement of their own that the court's ruling "recognizes that Los Angeles is a diverse county comprised of adherents of hundreds of faiths as well as non-believers, all of whom are entitled to be treated with equal dignity by their government."

Former county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavky, who opposed reinstating the cross, along with then-Supervisor Gloria Molina, praised the judge's decision.

"This is a great victory for the Constitution, for the 1st Amendment of the Constitution, for the premise that the government should not be in the religion endorsement business," he said.

(c)2016 the Los Angeles Times

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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