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2 supervisors propose adding religious cross to L.A. County seal

Religion and BeliefCourts and the JudiciaryNational GovernmentArts and CultureCulturePoliticsAmerican Civil Liberties Union

Potentially reigniting a contentious cultural battle, two Los Angeles County supervisors are proposing including an image of a cross in the county's official seal.

In a motion filed Tuesday, Supervisors Michael D. Antonovich and Don Knabe called for adding a cross to the depiction of the San Gabriel Mission on the round emblem that appears on county stationery, uniforms, cars and other property.

The motion notes that when the mission was added to the seal in 2004 during a redesign, the structure was not topped with a cross (it had been removed during an earthquake retrofitting). Four years ago, a cross was returned to the mission.

"The current rendering of the Mission on the seal is artistically and architecturally inaccurate," the motion reads. The cross should be added to the seal "in order to accurately reflect the cultural and historical role that the Mission played in the development of the Los Angeles County region."

From 1957 to 2004, the county seal featured a tiny gold cross floating above a rendering of the Hollywood Bowl. But under pressure from critics who argued that the religious image violated the constitutional separation of church and state, the county Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to remove the cross from the seal. That vote sparked a multiyear legal battle that ended in 2007 when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to the county's decision.

At the time, Antonovich vowed, "You'll see in your lifetime that the seal will be restored to its original depiction."

Only one seat on the board has changed since the 2004 vote, with the election of Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. His predecessor in the 2nd District, which includes much of South-Central Los Angeles, was Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who voted to remove the cross. But during the 2004 controversy, Burke faced pressure from influential African American religious leaders to keep the cross.

Ridley-Thomas said in an interview Tuesday that he looked forward to learning more about the proposal.

"I have a deep and abiding regard for the sentiment of the religious leadership of our communities, and I will be paying very close attention to the discussion as it unfolds," Ridley-Thomas said.

The 2004 vote came after county lawyers warned that the cross-bearing seal probably violated the national and state constitutions. The Times obtained a confidential memo prepared by the county's lawyers in early December in response to a request from Antonovich.

Including a stand-alone cross in the seal would probably be ruled unconstitutional, the memo said. But it highlighted cases where government displays of crosses passed legal muster because they were viewed as secular and historic, rather than religious.

Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of UC Irvine's law school, said he believes the L.A. County proposal is unconstitutional. But he noted changes on the court over the last decade have prompted some court observers to believe a coalition of justices now is in place that "would be more permissive allowing crosses on government property," he said.

The ACLU vowed to fight any effort to add a cross to the seal.

"The county's greatest strength is its diversity, religious and otherwise," said Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel of the ACLU of Southern California. "Placing a cross, the universal symbol of Christianity, back on the seal communicates that L.A. County favors one religion above all others and above the decision not to practice any."

seema.mehta@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Religion and BeliefCourts and the JudiciaryNational GovernmentArts and CultureCulturePoliticsAmerican Civil Liberties Union
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