On February 6, 2014, I joined with eight other plaintiffs representing Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities in the County of Los Angeles in a law suit against the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors alleging that the Board’s January 7, 2014 motion approving the restoration of a Latin cross to the official LA County seal violates the separation clause of the United States Constitution.

The nine plaintiffs include Reverend Father Ian Elliott Davies, Reverend J. Edwin Bacon, Jr., Shakeel Syed, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis (z’l), Rabbi John L. Rosove, Reverend Tera Little, Reverend Peter Laarman, David N. Myers, and Rabbi Amy Bernstein.

The Federal Establishment Clause prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion” or undertaking any act that unduly favors one religion over another, and we nine religious and community leaders were convinced that our rights as citizens of Los Angeles County and the rights of millions of LA county residents were being violated.

At the time, the LA County Board of Supervisors consisted of Gloria Molina, Mark Ridley-Thomas, Zev Yaroslavsky, Don Knabe, and Michael D. Antonovich.

The following is a review of events concerning the LA County seal, edited from the final court judgement:

On January 2, 1957, the Board of Supervisors adopted an official seal for the County of Los Angeles that depicted an image of the Hollywood Bowl, two stars, and an unadorned Latin cross. The Hollywood Bowl represented LA’s cultural tradition. The two stars represented the motion picture and television industries. It’s unclear whether the unadorned Latin cross was meant to represent “the influence of the church and missions of California,” or, more simply, religion.

In addition, the 1957 Seal depicted an image of Pomona, “the goddess of gardens and fruit trees,” to represent agriculture; the Spanish galleon San Salvador, which sailed into San Pedro Harbor on October 8, 1542; a tuna, to represent the fishing industry; the champion cow Pearlette, to represent the dairy industry; engineering instruments, to represent the County’s “contribution to the conquest of space”; and oil derricks, to represent oil fields discovered on Signal Hill.

The 1957 Seal served as the County’s official seal until 2004.

On May 19, 2004, the ACLU sent a letter to County officials stating that the presence of the cross on the 1957 Seal “reflects an impermissible endorsement of Christianity by the County” and was unconstitutional.

On June 1, 2004, the five members of the Board voted 3-2 to instruct County Counsel to “negotiate with the ACLU” to determine whether the ACLU would refrain from filing suit against the County.

On June 8, 2004, at one of several public meetings when the Board discussed potential revisions to the 1957 Seal, the Board heard testimony from members of the public, many of whom objected passionately on religious grounds to the removal of the Latin cross. Comments included the following:

“This is an attack on the body of Christ.”

“My Lord and Savior died on that cross and it would be horrible for me to just let it be erased.”

“The cross represents not just the passion that we are presenting today but the passion of Christ and [that] this is a Christian nation.”

“It’s a symbol of the love of Christ.”

On September 14, 2004, the County Chief Administrative Officer sent a letter to the Board recommending that it approve and adopt a proposed new County seal that (1) removed the Latin cross from above the Hollywood Bowl; (2) replaced the image of the oil derricks with a sketch of the eastern façade of the San Gabriel Mission, without any cross atop its roof; and (3) replaced the goddess Pomona with an image of a Native American woman carrying a basket.

During the public meeting, the County Administrative Officer stated that a “good figure” for the estimated cost of adopting the 2004 Seal throughout the County was $800,000. Ultimately, the Board voted 3-2 in favor of the proposed revisions, with Supervisors Burke, Molina, and Yaroslavsky voting to pass the motion, and Supervisors Antonovich and Knabe voting against it.

On October 26, 2004, the County Chief Administrative Officer sent the Board a final cost estimate of $700,000 to replace the County seal on County owned and leased facilities, decals affixed to County vehicles, and all computer applications, including websites, electronic letterhead, and software. Thereafter, the 2004 Seal was adopted throughout the County.

In 2009, a Latin cross was placed atop the eastern façade of the actual San Gabriel Mission. The original cross had been removed following an earthquake in 1989 (see motion below).

On December 31, 2013, Supervisors Antonovich and Knabe introduced a motion to add a Latin cross atop the depiction of the Mission on the 2004 County Seal.

Their motion read:

“The current rendering of the Mission on the seal is aesthetically and architecturally inaccurate. At the time that the seal was redesigned in 2004, the cross had been missing from the top of the mission since 1989 when it was taken down to retrofit the structure after damage from the Whittier Narrows earthquake. The cross was returned to the top of the Mission in 2009 after being lost for decades.”

The motion did not address the accuracy of the other images on the 2004 Seal, and Supervisors Antonovich and Knabe proposed no other changes to the seal.

On January 7, 2014, the Board held a public meeting and the ACLU opposed the motion saying:

“The government is returning a sectarian religious symbol to a seal less than ten years after its removal and one of the major objections to the removal in the first place [was] very strong religious objection.”

Zev Yaroslavsky, who a decade earlier had voted to remove the unadorned Latin cross from the 1957 Seal and to adopt the 2004 Seal, said:

“This is not just about history [aesthetics or architecture]; it’s about the cross.”

The Board voted 3-2 in favor of the proposed addition of the cross, with Supervisors Antonovich, Knabe, and Ridley-Thomas voting in favor, and Supervisors Molina and Yaroslavsky voting against.

Last week, on April 6, the Honorable Christina A. Synder of the United States District Court, ruled that the plaintiffs (i.e. the 9 representatives noted above representing Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities) have demonstrated that the addition of the cross to the 2004 Seal violates both the California and United States Constitutions, and that the County’s addition of the Latin cross to the 2004 Seal violates the No Aid and No Preference Clauses of the California Constitution as well as the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and thus the court granted a permanent injunction against ever adding a cross to the LA County seal.

At long last this controversy is over, and I want to express my deep gratitude to Judge Snyder, the ACLU attorneys, former Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky, Gloria Molina and Yvonne Burke, and my fellow plaintiffs.

This decision is a significant victory for First Amendment rights.

 

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