Friday, April 8, 2016
Judge Orders Cross Removed From County Seal
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A U.S. district judge yesterday permanently enjoined Los Angeles County from including a cross on its county seal.
Inclusion of the cross on the new seal, adopted in 2014, had a sectarian purpose, Judge Christina Snyder of the Central District of California ruled.
The judge cited the history of the last three county seals, beginning with that adopted in 1957.
That seal depicted the Hollywood Bowl, with an unadorned Latin cross in the sky above it. But after the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue the county in 2004 for violating the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, a new seal, depicting San Gabriel Mission without no cross above it, was adopted.
By that time, the mission’s historic cross was missing from the building, having been taken down during the course of earthquake retrofitting and subsequently stolen.
Two years ago, however, the Board of Supervisors approved what Supervisor Michael Antonovich referred to as a “historic correction,” restoring a version of the cross above the depiction of the mission.
Then-Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who had voted for the 2004 change, opposed the restoration of the cross, saying it would place a burden on the county “to defend the principal symbol of a religion on our seal.” He said it was disingenuous to say the argument was “just about history,” when it was really “about the cross.”
The new seal was approved by a 3-2 vote, and was challenged by a group of plaintiffs, backed by the ACLU, that included clergy of various faiths.
Snyder yesterday rejected the argument that the restoration of the cross—the only change made to the 2004 seal—had a primarily secular purpose.
Noting the chief executive officer’s estimate that adoption of a new seal would cost the county $800,000, the jurist wrote:
“A reasonable, objective observer aware of this contentious history would likely view the County’s recent decision to reintroduce a cross at substantial expense as motivated by a sectarian purpose, despite the County’s appeal to considerations of artistic and historical accuracy.”
She cited a number of cases which, in Snyder’s words, “have suggested that governmental use of religious symbols where nonreligious imagery would have sufficed generally evinces a religious purpose.”
The inclusion of the cross also violates the “no-preference” and “no-aid” clauses of the California Constitution, the judge said.
Art. I, §4 of the state Constitution says that all are entitled to the“[f]ree exercise and enjoyment of religion without discrimination or preference.” Art. XVI, §5 says, in part, that “[n]either the Legislature, nor any county . . . shall ever make an appropriation, or pay from any public fund whatever, or grant anything to or in aid of any religious sect, church, creed, or sectarian purpose.”
The no-preference clause, the judge said, is coterminous with the Establishment Clause, but the no-aid clause goes further, prohibiting the county from granting a sectarian benefit, even if it has a secular purpose.
She rejected the county’s characterization of the remedy sought by the plaintiffs as an “expungement” of the cross. “No such ‘expungement’ is at issue here, where the relevant governmental act is the County’s attempt to devote substantial resources towards an effort whose lone goal is the addition of a religious symbol to the County’s otherwise secular official emblem.”
Plaintiffs’ attorney Linda M. Burrow of Caldwell Leslie & Proctor, and Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, said in a statement:
“We are heartened by the court’s ruling because it 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. The placement of the cross on the official county seal promotes one religious sect above others and denies the principle that government represents all of the people, not just those who follow a particular faith.”
The county counsel did not respond to a MetNews request for comment, but Antonovich wrote in an email that the county “need[s] to appeal.”
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