Officials in Los Angeles County, Calif., did their best to force a religious symbol onto the county seal – until a federal judge wrecked their plans.
Last week, a U.S. district court said the county seal cannot contain a Latin cross, a symbol that was narrowly approved by the county board of supervisors two years ago.
In a 55-page decision, Judge Christina A. Snyder wrote that adding the cross to the seal would give a religious symbol “an aura of prestige, authority, and approval” by the government.
She also said it shows government favoritism toward one religion.
“By singling out the cross for addition to the seal, the county necessarily lends its prestige and approval to a depiction of one faith’s sectarian imagery,” Snyder wrote. “The county also provides a platform for broadcasting that imagery on county buildings, vehicles, flags, and stationary.… Permitting such a change and the associated expenditure of public funds places the county’s power, prestige, and purse behind a single religion, Christianity, without making any such benefit available on an equal basis to those with secular objectives or alternative sectarian views.”
The Los Angeles County seal has long contained a variety of symbols, including a representation of the Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, a Catholic mission founded in the 18th century.
For about the last 10 years, the seal has not contained any religious symbols because the mission itself did not have a cross on its exterior from 1987-2009 thanks to an earthquake and a theft. But the mission now has a large cross on top of the building, and some county supervisors wanted the seal to reflect that change.
In 2014, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to add the mission’s cross to the seal. The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California subsequently challenged that action.
But it’s doubtful that this legal victory will be the end of the matter. The Los Angeles Times reported that several county supervisors said they would support an appeal.
In a statement, Supervisors Don Knabe, Michael D. Antonovich and Mark Ridley-Thomas said, “I am disappointed by the Court’s ruling, which seems to me to be more about political expediency than the core of what this issue is – ensuring the historical accuracy of the Los Angeles County seal.”
Antonovich seems particularly fanatical about forcing a religious symbol onto a government seal. When the Times criticized the cross addition two years ago, Antonovich fired back that the newspaper was behaving like a “secular extremest” [sic].
In response, The Times called out Antonovich for his hypocrisy.
“It’s odd that a government official who has for so long been skeptical of government’s role in private life would get so bent out of shape over The Times calling for government to mind its own business and leave faith and religious symbols to the people and their houses of worship,” read another editorial.
Unfortunately, it seems county officials are determined to add a cross to the seal – no matter how little sense it makes to do so. Just over 10 years ago, the county removed a cross from the seal that was depicted floating above the Hollywood Bowl (a renowned concert venue), even though there isn’t actually a cross anywhere at that venue, in response to the threat of another lawsuit.
While there is some truth to the historical accuracy argument – after all, the mission does contain a cross now – it’s clear from the Hollywood Bowl incident that some elected officials will use any excuse they can think of to inject religion into what should be a secular seal. In doing so, they are sending a message that Christians are the favored religious group in Los Angeles County.
What these zealots fail to grasp is that Los Angeles County is a particularly diverse place. In 2010, there were 126 Buddhist temples there and 59 mosques. In 2000, there were 202 synagogues. Given those lofty numbers, it’s critical that local government officials make everyone feel welcome. Placing a Christian symbol on the county seal is a great way to do just the opposite.