Seriously Folks, This Is Not a Laughing Matter

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Ramona Ripston is executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, which led the fight for a new county seal.

Last summer, an editorial in The Times asked, “Who besides the ACLU’s lawyers and a handful of bureaucrats” know there’s a cross in the Los Angeles County seal?

Who? County employees of faith other than those represented by the cross yet required to wear that symbol on their clothing. Secular employees who carry out county business beneath the seal. Devout members of L.A. County’s diverse faith population who feel excluded by the use of a single religion’s symbol on the county seal.

These people matter even if their concerns were lost in the media-generated frenzy that turned this issue into a topic of ridicule.


In a February 1957 letter from the Board of Supervisors to California’s secretary of state, “religion” is listed as a represented element in the seal.

The U.S. Constitution does not permit official recognition of one religion to threaten the validity of another, nor impede the right of secular persons to live free of religious influence, whether implied or direct. The line that separates church from state is the main reason why religious life flourishes throughout the United States. The pluralism that results from defending that line was built into the founding of the nation, and the strength that flows from it has been critical to America’s success.

The nation’s founders understood the harmful effect that state-sponsored religion can have on citizens. That is why they recognized the critical need for government to avoid promoting or establishing a single religion. Any symbol of faith that’s used as an element of an official seal of a governmental body violates the spirit and the letter of the Constitution. The founders understood that the best way for government to protect religious life was to stay out of it.

The Constitution is the clarion of the nation’s founders: protect individuals from any and all attempts by the majority to curtail the liberties and rights of individuals. The ACLU exists to defend and secure those rights.

It was suggested in these pages last summer that residents outraged over a seal without a religious symbol channel their energy into other county issues: a crippled foster-care system, dysfunctional healthcare, a floundering jail system.

We agree. Not with the implication that religious tolerance and freedom are trivial matters, but that these other issues need attention. The ACLU of Southern California has fought on all these fronts.


The ACLU’s efforts resulted in the county providing adequate psychological and other support services to foster-care children and in stopping county attempts to shore up its ailing health system by gutting regional hospital services. It forced the state to provide decent facilities and educational materials to the poorest schools, one step toward ending de facto economic segregation.

The ACLU’s work to address these inequities has yet to attract the level of media attention lavished upon the redesign of the county seal.

The county supervisors’ approval of a county-seal redesign was not popular. But by recognizing the need to protect all religious freedom by making the symbol of its municipality free of any religious iconography, they made the correct decision.