Why is L.A. County picking a fight over a cross on its seal?

Los Angeles County seal
The old Los Angeles County seal, left, and a redesign that was approved in 2004 that does not contain the image of a cross. Los Angeles County is restoring a cross to the seal.
(Associated Press)

Of course the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and several religious groups sued L.A. County. Why wouldn’t they? County supervisors voted last month to add a Christian cross, an unmistakable symbol of one religious faith, to the county seal, an official symbol of government. Blending the Christian symbol into the government one signals an impermissible intertwining of church and state. It practically begs for a lawsuit.

Now what’s this going to cost us in legal fees? And who’s to blame?

The Times criticized Supervisors Michael D. Antonovich and Don Knabe in January for introducing their seal motion and foolishly reopening a debate that ended, or at least should have, a decade ago when the county removed a cross in the seal.

But the board’s two Republicans wouldn’t have made their move if they weren’t counting on a third supervisor joining them. That would be liberal Democrat Mark Ridley-Thomas, who wasn’t around for the distracting cross debate of 2004 but who for whatever reason opted to reintroduce the sectarian symbol. The costs of the lawsuit, the diversion of attention from more important county matters — these are now Ridley-Thomas’ crosses to bear.


The supposed rationale for this new cross is historical accuracy. You see, in 2004, the real San Gabriel Mission didn’t have a cross on top, but it does now, so the depiction of the mission in the seal must be modified too. Or something like that.

But for the sake of historical accuracy, and to finally put this seal mess to rest, perhaps the Board of Supervisors should use its pre-1957 seal, which served the board so well for so many years in welcome and appropriate obscurity. It featured a bunch of grapes. There aren’t a lot of commercial vineyards in Los Angeles County these days, but then there isn’t much of a ranching or tuna fishing industry anymore either, and the various cross-in, cross-out seals we have had over the last half-century all feature a cow and a tuna fish.

Courts have generally and appropriately frowned on crosses in government insignia. There are occasional exceptions, as in the case of Las Cruces, N.M. Its seal has crosses because that’s the city’s name.

But most rulings require crosses to be removed. Los Angeles County is the only government so far prepared to spend money and go to court to defend putting in a new cross. That’s something to keep in mind the next time you write a check to the county tax collector and wonder where all your money goes.


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