Looking for a place to register their complaints about Los Angeles County’s new government seal, Emma McCammon and her husband, Charles, knew exactly where to go Sunday morning: their church.
The couple arrived during a service at Shepherd of the Hills in Porter Ranch especially to sign a petition aimed at reinstating a Latin cross removed last year from the county’s official seal. As the 81-year-olds put pen to paper, a Bible lay on a table set aside for petitions. Next to it sat a sign imploring churchgoers: “Defend the cross.”
“I think it’s pure wrong,” Emma McCammon said. “They want to change history. The cross on the seal is California history.”
Campaigners working to collect enough signatures to put the issue on a countywide ballot have all but ignored the traditional venues for gathering signatures, such as shopping malls, in favor of preaching to the choir after Sunday services. Campaigners said that roughly 80% of signatures have come from church groups, some of them new to local politics.
Pastors have allowed signature collectors to greet parishioners as they leave on Sundays. Petitions have been left on church pews for congregants to sign. Preachers have voiced support for the seal’s cross from the pulpit. And some have offered prayers over the issue during Sunday services.
“We’ve gathered signatures at Catholic churches, at Coptic churches, at evangelical churches, at black churches, really across the spectrum,” said Tim Maschler, a television writer and campaign volunteer who has targeted about 20 churches for support.
“Some people are incensed that the Board [of Supervisors] is spending all this money to change the seal, but for Christians, it’s very simple. And that’s where we’ve received the most response.”
The push to gather signatures, which was in its final weekend on Sunday, has energized scores of churches and Christian groups across the county, said David Hernandez, who initiated the petition drive last year.
At issue is last September’s vote by supervisors to remove the gold cross that had adorned the seal since 1957, rather than defend it against a threatened lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union.
As part of a compromise with the ACLU, Supervisors Gloria Molina, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke and Zev Yaroslavsky voted to approve a new seal that, among other changes, has the image of a Christian mission without a cross. Supervisors Don Knabe and Mike Antonovich opposed the change, arguing that the county should fight the ACLU in court.
For parishioners who support the signature campaign, removal of the cross is seen as a rebuke to the region’s missionary history and a challenge to Christianity.
“It’s a definitive assault on Judea-Christian influences in society,” said Jay Leach, a professional guitarist who signed the petition after Shepherd of the Hills’ 10 a.m. service Sunday. “If this isn’t discrimination at its apex, I don’t know what is.”
For campaign organizers, who lack big-money donations usually crucial to such efforts, churches have offered some things they feel are equally important: time and prayers.
At Sunday worship at Pilgrim Lutheran Church in Santa Monica, where parishioners have helped gather signatures and hand out T-shirts that condemn the new seal, Pastor Nathan Kilian frequently asks that “God’s will be done” when it comes to restoring the seal’s cross.
“We are not typically known for being political, but we felt that this was a topic that was so very important, and we just wanted to have an opportunity to voice our concerns,” Kilian said. “It really felt hostile to us.”
Kilian’s church also joined one of three lawsuits challenging the removal of the cross. A federal judge dismissed one of the suits in October, ruling that replacing the cross with a Christian mission did not constitute a hostile act by government against religion.
The decision is being appealed, and all three legal challenges are awaiting a ruling from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
With few exceptions, federal courts have found the use of a cross on a government seal as an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. An ACLU attorney said a victory at the polls for cross advocates would likely result in a court challenge.
“I don’t see how you can look at a county seal with a big cross floating on it and think it’s anything other than a message that Christianity has a favored place in the eyes of the government,” said Peter Eliasberg, managing attorney for the ACLU of Southern California.
Since starting to raise signatures six months ago, campaigners have contacted hundreds of churches.
“For some of them, it’s a no-brainer, ‘We have absolutely got to do this,’ ” said Sandy Needs, a volunteer who contacted at least a dozen churches for help.
In Porter Ranch, volunteers collected 2,000 signatures in the rain last weekend at the nondenominational Shepherd of the Hills church, which has a weekly attendance of 7,000.
Under election rules, campaigners must collect 170,606 signatures from registered voters by Tuesday. That amounts to 10% of total votes cast countywide for governor in the 2002 election.
If successful, voters could get the chance to decide at an election this year whether the old county seal, including the gold cross, should be restored.
But local attempts to raise enough signatures are often unsuccessful. County election officials discount signatures they determine are illegible, duplicates or signed by people not registered to vote in Los Angeles County.
“We usually tell people you should try to get double what you need,” said Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder Conny McCormack. “That’s a cushion.”
As of Sunday, campaigners for the old seal were far short of that goal, believing they had gathered roughly 150,000 signatures. Their efforts, they said, have been hampered by a lack of money.
The campaign has raised just $40,000, some of it in $5 and $10 donations from radio listeners across the country who heard the seal issue discussed on political talk shows. That left organizers unable to employ professional signature collectors or pay for radio or television commercials, another reason they focused on church groups for help.
But in the final days of signature collecting, as volunteers made a last pitch to churchgoers, political experts said they were reluctant to write off their chances just yet.
“It’s definitely a David versus Goliath issue,” said Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. “But if the churches are involved, these are people who believe that David won.”