Two members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, reviving a decade-old controversy that ended in the U.S. Supreme Court, have introduced a motion to put a religious cross on the county’s official seal.
Conservative Supervisors Michael D. Antonovich and Don Knabe want the cross, which had a small presence on the multi-imaged seal from 1957 to 2004, restored in some form.
The board, back then, voted 3-2 to redesign the seal after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other rights activists argued that the cross was a religious symbol and violated the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. [“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”]
When the board ordered the seal redesigned, it swapped out two of the seven symbols and altered one. Oil wells and Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees, were removed. The San Gabriel Mission and the Mission San Gabriel Arcangel were added. And the small cross in the sky, hovering over the Hollywood Bowl next to two stars representing TV and movies, was cast out.
Knabe and Antonovitch argue that the cross could and should be placed on the San Gabriel Mission because the mission actually has a cross, although it didn’t used to. The centuries-old cross was taken off the mission in 1989 because of earthquake damage and was stolen. It was finally recovered but didn’t make it back to the mission until 2009, five years after the seal was redesigned.
The Thomas More Law Center sued the county in 2004, arguing that removing the cross was an act of hostility to religion and it was the county that was in violation of the Establishment Clause. Robert Muise, an associate counsel with the law center, told Christianity Today, “By singling out Christianity for removal from the symbol, and really removal from the history and founding of the county, they are conveying a message to Christians that they're second-class citizens. Their actions now have taken them over the threshold of constitutionality [and] convey an anti-Christian message.”
A U.S. District Court judge disagreed and the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. In its 2007 ruling, the court said that the county had a secular purpose, not a religious one, in removing the cross from the seal. It reasonably wanted to avoid getting sued by the ACLU for violating the Constitution’s Establishment Clause.
Secular purpose was one of three Lemon v. Kurtzman tests the court used for determining the validity of government actions challenged under the Establishment Clause. The second Lemon prong tests for hostility or advancement of religion. The court found, “Because a reasonable observer would not have viewed Defendants' removal of the cross from the seal as an act of hostility towards the Christian religion, or towards religion in general, we hold that the district court did not err,” the court added.
The third prong addressed the plaintiff’s argument that removal of the cross caused “tremendous public outcry” and fostered “great social and political divisiveness.” The court said it didn’t consider that pissing people off constituted the excessive entanglement of government with religion that Lemon discouraged.
The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal. But that was before years of conservative uproar over the War on Christmas and the rise of the radical right.