The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors’ decision to add a cross over the San Gabriel Mission on the county’s official seal was unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
A civil rights group sued the Board of Supervisors in February 2014, challenging the constitutionality of the panel’s decision to restore the cross nearly 10 years after legal wrangling prompted its removal from the county seal.
U.S. District Judge Christina Snyder took the matter under submission in November after a one-day bench trial.
In her ruling, the judge wrote that the return of the cross “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 complaint filed in federal court by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California alleged that the supervisors’ Jan. 7, 2014, decision to restore the cross was unconstitutional because it “favors the Christian religion over all other religions and divides county residents by religion and by adherence or non-adherence to religious beliefs.”
Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, and plaintiffs’ attorney Linda Burrow issued a joint statement saying the ruling affirms the area’s diversity.
“We are heartened by the court’s ruling because 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,” they said. “The placement of the cross on the official county seal promotes one religious sect above others and denies the principle that government represents all of the people, not just those who follow a particular faith.”
In a motion introduced by Supervisors Mike Antonovich and Don Knabe, the board voted 3-2 in 2014 to add a cross to the top of the San Gabriel Mission on the county emblem, which is displayed on buildings, vehicles and official communications. The supervisors had argued that restoring the cross is vital to the historical accuracy of the seal.
In a statement Thursday, Antonovich said the 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,” he said. “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.”
Antonovich said he would support appealing the decision because similar images of municipal seals are not unique to Los Angeles County. In fact, two California counties, Ventura and San Benito, have missions with crosses on their seals, as does the City of San Luis Obispo.
Knabe, too, indicated he was disappointed by the judge’s ruling, which he said appears to be born out of “political expediency than the core of what this issue is — ensuring the historical accuracy of the Los Angeles County seal.”
“The purpose of any seal is to reflect the culture and history of a region,” Knabe said. “Courts have ruled that municipal seals can include religious symbols when it depicts a historical fact or rendering.”
Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel of the ACLU/SoCal, responded that the two supervisors “are historians in the same way ‘SNL’s’ Father Guido Sarducci is a priest. These supervisors have exacerbated the constitutional slap at all religions by reinserting a Christian cross on the seal by means of a Pinocchio- style fib.”
Snyder wrote that the cross “carries with it an aura of prestige, authority, and approval. 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.”
—City News Service