Friday, February 7, 2014


While I have long been an admirer of the work of the American Civil Liberties Union, I also recognize that it is an organization made up of imperfect human beings, and it can make mistakes. A case in point is the brouhaha over depiction of a cross atop the rendition of Mission San Gabriel on the official seal of the County of Los Angeles. That argument --- along with all the trouble and expense of court battles --- is just plain silly.

A little background: The original 1887 county seal displayed grapes, surrounded by the words "Board of Supervisors — Los Angeles Co. Cal." That seal was used until 1957, when  the late L.A. County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn designed a new seal, drawn by Millard Sheets, that was adopted by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. The new seal included an image of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit trees --- along with the symbols of a cross and oil towers.

In 2004, the seal was voluntarily changed. On May 25 of that year, the ACLU claimed --- with some possible justification, I agree --- that the seal's cross was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. In addition to the three crosses, the Board's new seal design also eliminated Pomona and the oil towers --- to which the ACLU had not objected (they didn't even object to the prominent depiction of the Roman goddess).

In the current seal, the stars and an image of the Hollywood Bowl (originally in the middle right column, where the cross first appeared) replaced the oil towers. An image of Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, without a cross, was added. It so happens that the cross had been removed from atop the actual mission building during earthquake retrofitting, but it has since been replaced; after all, the mission is a Christian church.

On Jan. 7, 2014, the Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to put a cross back on top of the mission depicted on the County seal, claiming it more correctly reflected the history of the San Gabriel Mission. The ACLU of Southern California expressed opposition and went up in arms, claiming that action violated both the California and United States Constitutions, and a federal lawsuit was filed against Los Angeles County on February 6, 2014.

That is ludicrous. The building depicted on the seal is a mission, a church; it's not a Taco Bell. Churches, especially Catholic churches, are very often topped by crosses --- as that particular church was until the cross was removed temporarily. The fact that there is on that seal a depiction of a Roman Catholic church, complete with cross, does not suggest to me even subtly that the County is promoting Roman Catholicism. All it says to me (an Episcopalian, not  a Roman Catholic) is that Mission San Gabriel was very important in the history of this County --- and that is a true, historically verifiable fact.

What's next? Will the ACLU sue to have the names of San Francisco, San Diego, Santa Monica, Ventura, San Jose, et al, changed because those cities are named for Roman Catholic saints? That would make at least as much sense to me as this truly frivolous action being carried through the courts at great trouble and expense.

Restoration of the cross to the top of the mission on the Seal of Los Angeles County is not in any way a violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

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