It looks like a move by the board of supervisors to place an image of a cross on the official Los Angeles County seal will face a legal challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, told the Weekly that the organization was considering taking the matter to court following the board's 3-2 vote yesterday that will have County government use the Christian symbol on official documents and signs.
Why the fuss?
Eliasberg cites the Constitution's First Amendment, which establishes the separation of church and state.
The office of Michael D. Antonovich, one of the supervisors who proposed inclusion of the cross, argues that the move will “fix the inaccurate architectural depiction of the San Gabriel Mission.”
A spokesman for Antonovich explained that the vote means a cross that's on the actual San Gabriel Mission, the symbolic cornerstone of Los Angeles, will be depicted in a sketch of the mission that's on the County seal. (In the photo below, the structure is at the right, midway down).
The argument is that it's all about historical accuracy; this has little to do with a preferred religion. Antonovich:
To accurately reflect the role of the San Gabriel Mission in the historical and cultural development of Los Angeles County, today's action corrects the current rendering of the mission on the county seal which is artistically and architecturally inaccurate. … For hundreds of years, the mission has been the historic center for culture and art in our region and has had a vital influence on the expansion and development of Los Angeles County.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who provided a third and decisive vote to the cross motion carried by the conservative wing of the board, Antonovich and Supervisor Don Knabe, said this:
We live in a digital age where search engines and Wikipedia and other research tools are readily available at the touch of your phone, and even a simple search yields image after image of missions bearing a cross. If the County of Los Angeles has a seal that depicts its culture and heritage – past and present – then I see no reason why we should homogenize its mission history.
Interestingly, a circa-1900 photo of the 1771 mission, depicts no cross at the top of a gable, where an Antonovich spokesman said it should be.
Eliasberg says that doesn't matter.
A 1993 San Diego-area case, Ellis v. City of La Mesa, saw the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals set a precedent on the matter, he argues. The court said that La Mesa's depiction of a historic, community cross on its insignia (found on city uniforms, vehicles and stationary) was a violation of the law.
“Historical accuracy is not going to persuade the court,” Eliasberg said:
There are long traditions in the county of Los Angeles involving all kinds of religious faiths. And when you single out one of them, the Christian faith, you're sending a message that that's what matters.
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