A divided Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to add a cross back to the county's official seal, despite warnings the decision would invite legal challenges.
The proposal to change the seal, which appears on flags, vehicles and written communications with residents, was advanced by board members Michael D. Antonovich and Don Knabe and picked up a required third vote from Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.
The cross will be added to a small depiction of the San Gabriel Mission now in the seal. Supporters of the change called it a matter of historical and architectural accuracy; critics called it a thinly veiled effort to get a Christian symbol back in the county logo.
Antonovich and Knabe maintained that they simply want the design to accurately depict the 242-year-old historic site, as Knabe put it, so that it "looks like a mission instead of the back end of a Walmart."
Several county residents spoke in support of that view during Tuesday's board meeting.
"Our mountain ranges, our valleys, our hills, all of these things are named after Catholic saints," filmmaker and historian John Newcombe said. "I'm not a Catholic myself. My wife is Jewish. But I want to see this historically accurate."
But Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who voted with board member Gloria Molina against adding the cross, said, "It's not just about history, it's about the cross, and to say anything else is disingenuous."
From 1957 to 2004, the county seal featured a cross floating above a rendering of the Hollywood Bowl. The board voted 3 to 2 to remove the cross from the seal in 2004 rather than face a lawsuit being threatened by the American Civil Liberties Union. But then the county had to defend itself in a lawsuit filed by a county employee who opposed removing the cross. After three years, the county prevailed when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
During the redesign of the seal nine years ago, there was no cross on top of the San Gabriel Mission. It had been taken down for retrofitting after the 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake, and someone later stole it. Authorities recovered it in 2006 from the backyard of a Pasadena home. It was restored to the mission in 2009.
"We are not adding, we are reflecting upon a historical event that occurred in the county of Los Angeles," Antonovich said.
A confidential memo prepared by county lawyers in early December at Antonovich's request said that including a stand-alone cross in the seal would probably be ruled unconstitutional. But the memo also highlighted cases in which government displays of crosses passed legal muster because they were viewed as secular and historic, rather than religious.
Other public agencies have seals that depict religious symbols — including the city of Los Angeles, which includes a rosary in its seal.
Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, warned the board Tuesday that restoring the cross would be unconstitutional and "subject the county to numerous lawsuits and very likely legal liability."
Ridley-Thomas dismissed concerns about a potential court battle, saying the county has bigger problems, including the impending retirement of Sheriff Lee Baca.
"The mission is a part of the seal. There's no controversy about that, and I think this is much ado about constitutional wrangling," Ridley-Thomas said. "The seal will take care of itself."