Lawsuit over county seal is Ridley-Thomas’ cross to bear

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.

One reason to oppose returning a Christian cross to the Los Angeles County seal after an absence of 10 years is that the seal debate wasted enough time a decade ago. Another reason is that, when push comes to shove, it’s just not right to feature a single religion’s most recognizable symbol on an official government emblem.

And the third reason is the time and money that taxpayers would have to spend on the inevitable lawsuit challenging the placement of the cross as unconstitutional.

So here we are. The ACLU of Southern California on Thursday sued Los Angeles County for the Board of Supervisors’ action last month to put the cross back onto the county seal. What’s that going to cost us?

The Times warned the board against the move in an editorial on Jan. 3.


“It’s hard to imagine a more pointless diversion of focus and resources than the two supervisors’ motion to add a cross to a tiny depiction of San Gabriel Mission on the official but obscure symbol that county employees use on their stationery and that county buildings fly on their flags,” we wrote.

Those two supervisors, by the way, are Don Knabe and Michael D. Antonovich, both of whom insist that the purpose of putting a cross back on the seal, this time atop a depiction of San Gabriel Mission, is all about history and architectural accuracy, not religion. You see, in 2004, when they put the mission on the seal in lieu of some oil derricks, the real mission didn’t have a cross on the top, but it does now, so the mission in the seal should be modified too. Or something like that.

It’s not that I have second thoughts about calling out Knabe and Antonovich; the argument that history and architecture demands the seal be updated is silly.

But they wouldn’t have taken this move now unless they knew they were going to get a third, and winning vote. And they got it -- from Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. He’s the liberal Democrat who joined the board’s two Republicans in bringing back the cross. And now the costs of defending against the suit will be Ridley-Thomas’ cross to bear.


In case you’re not up on your cross/seal lore, here’s a primer. The county’s seal for decades depicted a bunch of grapes, and no one seemed to mind. Or notice. Then in 1956, a new seal was designed by Supervisor Kenneth Hahn and actually drawn by artist Millard Sheets, a fine California painter who unfortunately may be best known for the mosaics he did for about 50 branches of Home Savings. The Board of Supervisors adopted the new seal in 1957. It included a cross hovering in the air over a symbol of the Hollywood Bowl.

Some 40-plus years later a county employee complained about having to come to work each day under a cross. The ACLU, which had sued the city of Redlands over a cross on its seal, turned its attention to L.A. County. It threatened suit. On a 3-2 vote, the supervisors removed the cross.

Then a different county employee sued, asserting that the act of removing the cross was an expression of hostility toward religion. The problem, of course, was that the allegation showed that cross supporters really were concerned about religion, not about history, architecture or anything else. Two courts upheld the removal, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take the case.

By the way, the real cross on San Gabriel Mission was added to the mission in 1959, according to a Times story. It was taken down in 1987 as the building underwent retrofitting following the Whittier Narrows earthquake. Then in 2005 someone stole it, but it was found the following year in the backyard of a Pasadena home, upside down, with Christmas lights on it. In 2009 it was put back on top of the mission, where it had been placed 50 years earlier. It was missing for 22 years. So I suppose that if we really wanted to be historically accurate, we’d keep the cross off the tiny mission on the county seal for another 12 years, and then have another round of lawsuits.


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