In a reprise of an earlier legal fight, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California sued the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Thursday for voting to return a religious cross to the official County seal.
“The restoration of the cross to the County seal favors the Christian religion over all other religions,” says the federal lawsuit. It argues that the addition of the cross would violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The clause, part of the First Amendment, bars the preference of one religion over another by government agencies.
The ACLU is representing eight religious leaders, including Reverend Edwin Bacon of All Saints Church in Pasadena, Rabbi Harold Schulweiss of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, and Shakeel Syed, a lay leader in the Muslim community.
In 2004, under threat of another lawsuit by the ACLU, the board of supervisors voted 3-2 to remove the cross from the county seal. The cross was part of the first official seal, created in 1957, and was featured above a rendering of the Hollywood Bowl.
The vote to remove it sparked a legal battle that culminated in 2007 with the U.S. Supreme Court refusing to hear a challenge by conservative Christian groups to the board’s vote.
Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky, Gloria Molina, and Yvonne Burke – all Democrats – comprised the board majority that voted to remove the seal.
Supervisors Mike Antonovich and Don Knabe, both Republicans, voted against removing the cross, and proposed restoring it last year. Last month, supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, a Democrat who replaced Burke in 2008, joined them in voting to return the cross to the seal. They argued they were making the seal historically correct, because the San Gabriel Mission depicted on the County seal has a cross.
“The County of Los Angeles has a seal that is intended to respect our shared history,” Ridley-Thomas said in a statement after the vote. “The San Gabriel Mission is a uniquely important part of Los Angeles County’s heritage.”
The San Gabriel Mission was founded by Father Junipero Serra in September, 1771.
“Once again, the ACLU storm troopers are attempting to rewrite history,” Antonovich said in a statement. At least three other California municipalities have official seals that include a cross on top of the local mission, he said.
The ACLU lawsuit says the only way to interpret the cross is as a religious symbol, and notes no other such symbols are on the seal.
“The cross is the most readily and widely identifiable of all religious symbols,” the lawsuit states. “The cross is the iconic Christian symbol.”
The lawsuit also cites 2000 census data that said 58% of county residents identify as being affiliated with religious congregations. Of those 68.8 percent identify as Christian, 10.2 percent identify as Jewish, 1.7 percent as Muslim, 1.3 percent identify as Buddhist, and 1.3 percent identify as Hindu.
Forty-two percent, nearly four million residents, do not identify with any religious congregation, according to the census data cited in the lawsuit.
The county has yet to add the cross to the official seal – which appears on letterhead, certain government buildings, and all official county cars.
[This story was updated to include comments by Supervisor Antonavich]