Tuesday, December 4, 2007
High Court Affirms Decision to Remove Cross From County Seal
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday declined to hear an appeal of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors’ decision to remove a cross from the county seal, effectively ending a challenge by a county employee who claimed the action could reasonably be interpreted as hostile to Christianity.
Without comment, the justices denied certiorari to Ernesto R. Vasquez, who had sought to appeal a ruling by a three-judge panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal in May unanimously affirming the decision by U.S. District Judge S. James Otero of the Central District of California to dismiss the suit.
The board removed the cross in 2004 by a vote of three to two in order to stave off a lawsuit threatened by the American Civil Liberties Union. The group, who contended that inclusion of the cross represented a violation of the constitutional precept of separation of church and state, had argued in a letter to each supervisor that the “Latin cross” on the 47-year-old seal was a “sectarian religious symbol that represents the beliefs of one segment of the county’s diverse population.”
Vasquez filed suit, arguing that the redesigned seal, which omitted the cross and instead included the image of a Spanish mission, sent a message to Christians that they are outsiders. A self-identified “devout Christian,” he claimed he was harmed because he was forced to be in direct contact with the altered seal as a county employee.
However, after Otero dismissed the case, the ninth circuit panel affirmed his decision and held that removal of the cross was neither hostile towards Christianity, nor a violation of the Establishment Clause, because the county had taken the action for the secular purposes of avoiding litigation by persons opposed to the symbol and affirming religious neutrality.
Action Not Hostile
Writing for the panel, Judge Richard R. Clifton also opined that reasonable persons would not perceive the action as hostile to Christianity or to religion in general, and that the alleged social and political divisiveness of the action did not amount to excessive entanglement of government and religion.
“[A] reasonable observer who is ‘informed . . . [and] familiar with the history of the government practice at issue’ would not view Defendants’ removal of the cross from the LA County Seal as an act of hostility towards religion,” Clifton wrote.
“To the contrary, Defendants’ removal of the cross is more reasonably viewed as an effort to restore their neutrality and to ensure their continued compliance with the Establishment Clause. This is demonstrated by the fact that Defendants removed the cross only after the presence of crosses on other municipal seals had been held to be unconstitutional.”
The previous county seal, which had been in place since 1957, had displayed a tiny cross along with two stars above the Hollywood Bowl. In addition to omitting the cross, the new design moved the image of the Hollywood Bowl to replace oil derricks, inserted an image of Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, and substituted the image of a Native American woman in the center of the seal for the Roman goddess Pomona.
The case is Vasquez v. Los Angeles County, 07-427.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company