How about those folks at the American Civil Liberties Union and their sense of timing?

It was just dumb luck that their ultimatum to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, to remove a small gold crucifix from the county seal or face a costly lawsuit, was followed almost immediately by the passing of Ronald Reagan. The Reagan memorial rituals that unfolded all week lent an added emotional edge to the nearly 1,000 people who gathered Tuesday at the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration for a pro-seal, anti-ACLU rally. “Save the cross and win one for the Gipper,” said one sign at the demonstration. “What would Reagan do?” asked another.

But the ACLU of Southern California knew the county would have to change flags, patches, decals, stickers and stationery at a time when hospitals are closing, inmates are murdered in county jail, and unwanted and abused children go without care. Why now? Couldn’t they find a better time for this?

Zev Yaroslavsky, Gloria Molina and Yvonne Burke voted last week to work out something with the ACLU — perhaps a depiction of a mission instead of the cross. But a mission without the cross, as one member of the public noted, merely looks like a building where you drive through to order a chalupa. Mike Antonovich and Don Knabe argued for fighting the ACLU and keeping the seal as it is.

In the board hearing room, two huge seals on foam board were recently replaced at a cost of about $2,800 after someone discovered that the old seals improperly depicted a dairy cow, making it look more like a bull, and a tuna fish, which appeared more like a shark.

Some card-carrying members of the ACLU (including me) began to think that the organization had gone over the edge. But then, the ACLU doesn’t try to be popular. It exists to offend — like when it goes to the mat for neo-Nazi demonstrators — in order to defend the Bill of Rights. In this case, the ultimatum to remove the seal is meant to prevent undue entanglement of government with religion in violation of the First Amendment. There is rarely a convenient time for such a move.

The county will have to fix the seal anyway. Its flag, for example, sports a four-pointed star instead of a cross. The patches worn by county employees have a single pentagram where the two stars over the Hollywood Bowl should be, and a cow that looks like a German shepherd. And there are still plenty of those “bad seals” that have the shark.

The day before the hearing, in an opinion by conservative Reagan appointee Alex Kozinski, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a cross on federal land in the Mojave Desert is an unconstitutional entanglement of government with religion. It was one more bit of evidence that the choice the county faces was simple: Remove the cross from the seal. Or pay for a lawsuit, pay the ACLU’s legal fees — and then remove the cross from the seal.

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