High court won't hear seal lawsuit

Times Staff Writer

The U.S. Supreme Court declined Monday to take up the case seeking to force Los Angeles County to restore a cross to its seal, thus ending a three-year battle by some Christian activists.

County public works employee Ernesto R. Vasquez filed suit in 2004, contending that a decision by the Board of Supervisors to excise the cross from its nearly 50-year-old seal was an act of hostility toward religion.

As is its custom, the court gave no reason for its refusal to take the case.

"This is pretty much the end of the road," said William Becker, an attorney who helped spearhead the effort to restore the cross.

The American Civil Liberties Union asked supervisors three years ago to remove the cross on grounds that it represented an endorsement of religion.

County attorneys urged leaders to comply, adding that a legal battle would be long, costly and eventually futile.

Supervisors voted 3 to 2 to remove the cross, with Mike Antonovich and Don Knabe voting no.

Antonovich said Monday he would make an attempt to bring back the old seal if he can find a third vote on the board.

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

The removal of the cross drew at least three lawsuits, all of which failed. Cross proponents also attempted several times, unsuccessfully, to gather enough signatures to place the matter before voters.

"I was hoping the Supreme Court would take a case where there was hostility toward religion," said attorney Richard Muise of the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Thomas More Law Center, who filed the suit on Vasquez's behalf. "I think this court, given the right case, would take it, and it would be one that would change the landscape of separation between church and state."

Designers of the replacement seal also removed the goddess Pomona and the oil derricks of Signal Hill, replacing them with the San Gabriel Mission and a Native American woman holding a bowl of acorns.

"I think that the law was pretty clear to begin with," said Jennifer Lehman, an attorney with the county counsel's office. "Governments are to be neutral when it comes to religion."

County officials said they replaced the seal on most buildings within a year of the order. Smaller depictions of the county government symbol continue to be phased out as they are found. The seal adorns buildings, cars, employee uniforms, letterhead and official websites.

"It's embedded in so many places that sometimes we haven't found it yet," said Judy Hammond, a spokeswoman for the county.

Knabe and Antonovich, however, said they are still using letterhead stationery and other materials with the old seal to avoid wasting the items.

"It makes no sense to throw it out," said Antonovich spokesman Tony Bell.



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