Supervisor Mike Antonovich implored citizens Saturday to sign a petition that would put a measure on the November ballot to restore a cross to the county seal.
County supervisors voted 3 to 2 last month to remove the cross, which has been part of the seal since 1957, after the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue. The group said the cross was a government endorsement of Christianity.
Although county attorneys had said the ACLU could prevail in court, Antonovich and Supervisor Don Knabe supported keeping the cross, saying the threatened lawsuit was tantamount to religious censorship.
Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky, Gloria Molina and Yvonne Brathwaite Burke voted to seek a compromise with the ACLU to replace the cross with other historic images.
Standing at the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration in downtown in front of 20 people who support the petition, Antonovich said the ACLU was using "fear and intimidation and pressure tactics just like the storm troopers in the past to rewrite history and force those in power to kneel to an issue."
David Hernandez, a Republican candidate vying to unseat U.S. Rep. Howard Berman in the 28th District, is trying to collect 170,606 signatures by Friday. The number of signatures required is equivalent to 10% of the number of county residents who voted in the 2002 gubernatorial election, according to the county registrar.
Hernandez said the petition would be circulated at churches and synagogues in the area. If the petition is unsuccessful, Hernandez said he would seek to place the measure on the March 2006 ballot.
Hernandez said he was motivated to get involved in a county issue because many of his would-be constituents never had an opportunity to vote on the cross issue. "It's not always an easy job to defend the Constitution and not infrequently we are condemned for doing so," said Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California. "I would say ballot initiatives are appealing to popular prejudices and Supervisor Antonovich knows this."
Ripston said the ACLU has received hundreds of complaints since it threatened its lawsuit. Some of the grumbling, she said, has come from ACLU supporters who said there were more pressing civil rights issues.
Ripston said the ACLU took up the issue after receiving complaints. She took exception with Antonovich's characterization of the group as using tactics akin to storm troopers, saying "all we try to do is make sure the U.S. Constitution is carried out."
The seal is often found on county property and is also decorated with a cow, Spanish galleon, tuna fish and the goddess Pomona holding fruit.
Transcripts from a meeting of the Board of Supervisors in 1956 show that the cross was intended to be a religious symbol. At the time, Kenneth Hahn said the seal portrayed the religious life of the county.
Petition supporters say the cross is also seen as a symbol of the Spanish missionaries that settled California in the late 1700s. Antonovich said his office has received about 3,000 calls and e-mails from people expressing outrage over the removal.
He also predicted that allowing the cross to be removed could be a precursor to one day changing the names of cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, both of which have religious connotations.
Meg Langford, 46, a Canoga Park writer who attended the rally, said that she supported the reinstatement of the cross because of its historical significance, and called it a benign presence on the seal.
Langford said the removal of the cross is in her view very different from the recent, unsuccessful court challenge to the phrase "one nation, under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.
"No one is going to run out and become a Christian because of the cross" on the seal, she said. "I think I'm being reasonable. I'll entertain debate about the 'under God' because it's making someone say something and I don't think you should make a little Muslim or atheist kid say that."