In a ruling released on April 7, Judge Christina A. Snyder of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California stated that a representation of the historic San Gabriel Mission topped by a tiny cross that was included in the Los Angeles County seal violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, asserting that a “reasonable, objective observer” would see a sectarian purpose in having the cross on the seal, regardless of the official explanation.
The First Amendment prohibits Congress from enacting a law “respecting an establish of religion.”
In her ruling, Snyder wrote:
[The addition of the cross to the seal] 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.
The county also provides a platform for broadcasting that imagery on county buildings, vehicles, flags, and stationary.… Permitting such a change and the associated expenditure of public funds 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.
A cynic might be tempted to observe that the two stars representing the motion picture and television industries most certainly represent “those with secular objectives.”
When the Los Angeles County Board of supervisors adopted a new seal for the county in 1957 (to replace the 1887 seal that depicted simply a bunch of grapes) it contained a montage of illustrations depicting several things representative of the county. One of these was the Hollywood Bowl, over which was displayed “two stars representing the motion picture and television industries and the cross representing the influence of the church and missions of California.”
The latter statement is undeniable. The 44 settlers who established the original town in the area in 1781 called it “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula,” which translates in English to “The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of the Porciúncula River.” (The Porciúncula River is now called the Los Angeles River.) Since all religions don’t acknowledge angels, it would seem that the very name of the county (Los Angeles means “the angels”) is unconstitutional by the logic of the plaintiffs.
In 2004, after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) threatened a lawsuit over the presence of a cross on the previous seal, the supervisors removed it and inserted a depiction of the San Gabriel Mission. Since the cross on the actual mission was missing at the time, because of restoration work being done on the building following an earthquake, it was omitted from the picture on the seal. In 2014, five years after the cross had been replaced on the actual mission, the board of supervisors voted to add the cross to the mission on the seal. However, the forces opposed to visible signs of Christianity in American society sprang into action.
The Los Angeles Times reported last November 12 that soon after voting to restore the cross to the seal, “the supervisors were promptly sued by a group of religious leaders and scholars from different faiths, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and a private law firm.”