L.A. County faces suit over adding religious cross to seal
A group of religious leaders filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against Los Angeles County over a Board of Supervisors’ decision to place a cross on the county’s seal.
Supervisors voted 3 to 2 last month to add the cross to the top of the San Gabriel Mission as it appears on the county emblem, which is displayed on buildings, vehicles and official written communications.
Years ago, the board had removed a cross from the seal when a similar suit was threatened.
The complaint filed Thursday argues that restoring the cross violates the state and U.S. constitutions because it “favors the Christian religion over all other religions and divides County residents by religion and by adherence or non-adherence to religious beliefs.”
The group of local religious officials and practitioners from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths are being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the law firm of Caldwell Leslie & Proctor.
“For Christians, [the cross] is specifically a Christian symbol, and it is unfair, to say the least, that a Christian cross should be the only religious symbol on our county seal,” plaintiff Ian Elliott Davies, rector of St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal Church in Hollywood, said Thursday.
Supervisors Michael D. Antonovich and Don Knabe, the main proponents of restoring the cross, argued that adding it to the seal was an issue of historical accuracy, not religion.
Antonovich issued a statement saying, “Once again, the ACLU storm troopers are attempting to rewrite history,” and Knabe said the move to add the cross “was in the name of historical correctness, not political correctness.”
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who joined them in the vote, said in a statement that keeping the cross off the seal “is not honoring a line between church and state; it is a politically correct whitewashing of our shared history.”
The county initially adopted a seal in 1957 that portrayed a cross floating over the Hollywood Bowl. In 2004, a divided Board of Supervisors voted to remove the cross rather than fight a threatened lawsuit by the ACLU. A county employee sued to have the cross restored, sparking a multiyear court battle that ended in 2007 when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to the county’s decision.
When the seal was redesigned in 2004, it included a depiction of the San Gabriel Mission to reflect the role of Catholic missions in the county’s history, but there was no cross on top. At the time, there was no cross on the physical mission, either, as it had been taken down during earthquake retrofitting and was later stolen. The cross was eventually recovered and replaced atop the mission.
Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Gloria Molina voted against adding the cross, citing concerns about likely litigation. Molina declined to comment on the ACLU lawsuit.
Yaroslavsky said in an interview, “This is not a surprise. We were warned by our own attorneys that we would likely face a challenge … and now we’ll have the privilege of spending money to defend a decision that didn’t need to be made.”
Antonovich spokesman Tony Bell blamed the ACLU for wasting county resources: “We believe it’s a frivolous lawsuit that should be fought vigorously like any frivolous lawsuit,” he said.
County Chief Executive William T Fujioka issued a memo after the January vote saying the county’s internal service department would begin setting up purchasing agreements to put the new seal on county buildings. The county will use up its inventory of items with the old seal for such things as letterhead, employee badges and business cards before replacing them, he wrote.
Fujioka’s spokesman, David Sommers, said the county does not yet have an estimate of how much the replacement will cost and has not determined whether the work schedule will be put on hold until the lawsuit is resolved.
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