Nearly 10 years after legal wrangling prompted Los Angeles County to remove a cross from its official seal, the Board of Supervisors narrowly voted Tuesday to add a cross to the depiction of the San Gabriel Mission.
When the county seal was redesigned in 2004 — removing a cross and other images under the threat of legal action by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California — it included a depiction of the mission, which at the time did not have a cross because it was being retrofitted after the Whittier Narrows earthquake.
The cross, however, was reattached to the mission in 2009, making the county seal’s depiction of the mission “artistically and architecturally inaccurate,” according to the motion introduced by Supervisors Mike Antonovich and Don Knabe.
Antonovich said the change was strictly a matter of making “a historical correction” and ensuring that the seal accurately portrays the mission. He pointed out that the story of the missions is part of public school lessons.
“In every fourth-grade curriculum in the State of California, you have the history of the missions,” Antonovich said. “The history of Los Angeles County began with the founding of the San Gabriel Mission by Father Junipero Serra in September, 1771.”
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky — who, along with Supervisor Gloria Molina, cast the dissenting votes — disagreed.
“It’s not just about history, it’s about the cross,” Yaroslavsky said.
“To say otherwise is disingenuous.”
If the county wants to honor the history of the missions, there are a “hundred ways” to do so other than replacing the cross, Yaroslavsky argued, including putting angels on the seal or a depiction of Father Serra.
Restoring the cross, Yaroslavsky warned, would expose the county to lawsuits it would be sure to lose on constitutional grounds.
An ACLU spokesman agreed.
“The ACLU of Southern California strongly opposes the motion,” said Peter Eliasberg, legal director for the ACLU Southern California. “Doing so would violate both California and the United States Constitution.”
After the county redesigned its seal in 2004 to remove the depiction of a cross, a county employee named Ernesto Vasquez filed a lawsuit claiming the action was hostile to Christianity
A federal judge rejected the suit, and a federal appeals court panel upheld the dismissal. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case.
Eliasberg said the issue was favoring one religion over any other.
“Los Angeles (is) the world’s most religiously pluralistic metropolitan area,” Eliasberg said. “Religious pluralism has flourished because the government does not favor or denigrate any particular religion. Adding sectarian religious symbols to the county seal runs against that grain.”
The Anti-Defamation League said it sent a letter to the board on Monday, opposing the motion, and was “deeply disappointed” by the supervisors’ move.
“Today’s vote … sends the divisive and exclusive message to Los Angeles County residents that not only does the Board of Supervisors endorse religion over non-religion, but it also prefers Christianity over all the other diverse faiths with the county,” said Amanda Susskind, ADL’s regional director for the Pacific Southwest.
“While a cross may be appropriate on a house of worship, private school or university, it is unsuitable on a government seal that represents a religiously and ethnically diverse county of over 10 million people,” she said.