LOS ANGELES – A handful of Southern California religious leaders won a victory Thursday to bar the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors from putting a Latin cross back on the county seal.
U.S. District Judge Christina Snyder sided with seven religious leaders from various faiths in granting their motion for permanent injunction in her long-anticipated 55-page order (pdf) on the matter.
Snyder heard oral arguments from both sides last November.
The lawsuit came after a 3-2 vote by the supervisors in January 2014 to include an image of a cross on the county seal. The cross would have been placed atop a depiction of the San Gabriel Mission featured in the center-right side of the seal.
That touched off a legal battle with religious leaders of several faiths just a month later, who said inclusion of the cross endorsed Christianity over other religions. During oral arguments, the leaders asked Snyder to find that the supervisors violated the leaders’ right to religious freedom under the Establishment Clause by endorsing a religion.
In 1957, the county adopted an official seal depicting a cross floating over the Hollywood Bowl. Decades later, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) threatened legal action and the county redesigned the seal and took out religious symbols.
In her summary of the history of the case and the seal’s controversy over the years, Snyder noted the back-and-forth that took place at several public meetings in 2004 after the ACLU threatened to file suit against the county.
County Supervisor Michael Antonovich opposed removing the cross from the seal at the time, stating “the cross is a part of a historical fact with the founding of the County of Los Angeles, just as the Star of David on the Sheriff’s badge is a reflection of the Judaic heritage and the laws of Moses.”
The board voted 3-2 in favor of adopting the revised seal in 2004. Changing the seal cost the county $700,000 to replace the image on county-owned and leased facilities and other property.
Antonovich and Supervisor Don Knabe proposed adding a cross to the 2004 redesign in 2009, when the Roman Catholic Church placed a cross on the Mission San Gabriel Arcangel 11 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. The two supervisors introduced a motion to add a cross to the depiction of the mission on the seal in December 2013.
In her order, Snyder found “that an ‘informed and reasonable’ observer who is ‘familiar with the history of the government practice at issue’ would perceive the county's addition of the cross to the 2004 seal to constitute approval or endorsement of a particular set of religious beliefs.”
Snyder also found the religious leaders demonstrated they would suffer irreparable injury in the absence of an injunction “as defendants have violated their constitutional rights.” The balance of hardship also tipped in the plaintiffs’ favor, Snyder found, noting “federal courts have consistently held that public-interest concerns are implicated when a constitutional right has been violated because all citizens have a stake in upholding the Constitution.”
Antonovich told the Los Angeles Times that Snyder's ruling “ignores historical and architectural reality.”
“The court failed to see that the board corrected the inaccurate depiction of the San Gabriel Mission on the seal with an architecturally accurate version that featured a small cross – which of course the mission has,” Antonovich said in a statement. “As any California fourth-grade student knows, the San Gabriel Mission is an important icon to the region and the birthplace of Los Angeles County.”
In a statement posted on the American Civil Liberties Union website, executive director Hector Villagra and attorney Linda Burrow said they were “heartened” by the court’s ruling.
“It recognizes that Los Angeles is a diverse county comprised of adherents of hundreds of faiths as well as non-believers, all of whom are entitled to be treated with equal dignity by their government,” the statement said.
A blog post on the ACLU website by Rev. J. Edwin Bacon Jr., one of the religious leaders represented in the lawsuit, noted the San Gabriel Mission did not have a cross on it until recently – bucking the supervisors’ claims that including the religious symbol on the seal was a matter of “historical accuracy.”
“In 2004, when faced with a lawsuit, the board opted to eliminate the cross from the seal precisely because of its religious significance. The board’s decision then was an unambiguous admission that the cross represented one thing and one thing only: Christianity,” Bacon wrote.
County attorney Timothy Coates and Linda Burrow, representing the religious leaders, did not immediately return phone and email requests for comment.