To those unfamiliar with the history of Los Angeles County, its official seal appears to be a strange assortment of unfamiliar symbols, with a Native American woman and some animals thrown in for good measure. To those involved in the recently-filed lawsuit about a council-sanctioned addition of a cross, however, it represents the struggle between historical accuracy and civil liberty.
The original county seal, designed in 1887, simply depicted a cluster of grapes. It was redesigned in 1957 and much more closely resembled today’s seal, featuring the Roman goddess of fruit trees, Pomona, surrounded by images of oil towers, the Hollywood Bowl with stars and a cross overhead, a cow (representing the dairy industry), a tuna fish (representing the fishing industry), a Spanish galleon, and a triangle and cipher (representing the engineering and astronomical industries). In 2004, Pomona was replaced with an image of a Native American woman, the oil towers were eliminated and the Hollywood Bowl moved into their place. An image of the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel was placed where the Hollywood Bowl had formerly been. The cross was removed from the seal, also in 2004, as the American Civil Liberties Union had threatened a lawsuit over its inclusion in the county seal. Since the mission’s own cross had been removed during maintenance work and was then stolen, the county board members decided against depicting the missing cross with the mission.
However, the mission’s cross was reinstated in 2009, and the question of whether or not to add it to the county seal has become the subject of fierce debate. On January 7, the County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 in favor of its inclusion and a lawsuit, Reverend Father Ian Elliot, et al, v. Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, et al, was filed by the ACLU on February 6 in opposition. The ACLU claims that the cross’s depiction would be unconstitutional because it “favors the Christian religion over all other religions and divides County residents by religion and by adherence or non-adherence to religious beliefs.” Those in favor of the inclusion (Michael D. Antonovich, Don Knabe and Mark Ridley-Thomas) argued that it was purely a matter of historical accuracy, since the mission generally has always mounted a cross, as it currently does. According to the proponents, the cross would thus not be a religious symbol but a historical detail.
Those opposing its adoption, Zev Yaroslavsky and Gloria Molina, stated that they were concerned about possible litigation — which has since come to fruition through the ACLU. The ACLU has argued that the cross is a clearly identified symbol of Christianity. As such, it would violate the constitutionally-mandated separation of church and state. Others in opposition to the implementation simply wonder why the board is expending taxpayer-funded time and resources to add a small detail to the seal and fight a lawsuit, especially when issues like homelessness, hunger and water shortages continue to afflict county residents. One wonders whether deep-pocketed individuals seeking to religiously brand the county might have wielded influence in forcing the vote.
Regarding the use of a cross as a purely religious or secular symbol, the case can be made for either side. The International Red Cross is one example of an organization whose use of a cross does not hold religious meaning; the Red Cross symbol was modeled after the Swiss flag, which features a cross in reverse colors. Other Switzerland-based organizations and companies, such as Victorinox AG and Wenger SA (both of Swiss Army knife fame) also use crosses on their logos. Outside of organizations, the cross is of course used as a symbol to indicate an additive operation in math.
However, in matters other than multi-tool pocket knives and numerical calculations, few people would associate the right-angled intersection of vertical and horizontal bars with many things other than Christianity. The identification of a cross with early Christianity traces back at least to the second century C.E., obviously derived from the crucifix and the painful death of a first-century Jew. Since then, the cross has been featured on religiously-themed media — from Crusader flags, which declared the supremacy of Christianity, to grave markings, which identify the religion of the deceased. Many Christians today wear crosses as adornment — usually as necklaces — which show a commitment to their faith.
Even though the county seal would only feature a cross to show historical accuracy and the county’s nascence as a Catholic pueblo, to place any religious motif on a public symbol is to inherently emphasize that religion. The county government’s decision to replace the cross on the seal conveys the impression that the county is mainly Christian and the government mainly represents Christians. For example, the Israeli government’s symbol is the menorah, which, although not exclusively Jewish, does carry Jewish associations for most whom it would concern. However, unlike the United States, Israel does not have a separation of church and state and its government and many of its policies carry clear associations with Judaism. The Knesset is also the government in a majority-Jewish state, although there are many non-Jewish Israelis. Los Angeles County, however, bears the federal stipulation of the separation of government and religious matters and so cannot legally identify with any religion. Had the cross been continuously on the seal from the seal’s inception it would perhaps be a different matter, but its special board vote and deliberate placement single it out and draw attention to the cross as an element of particular significance.
Furthermore, for some Christians, the secularization of the cross may be offensive, as it denies the nature of their most well-known symbol. Were the cross to be divorced from Christianity, those who value it for religious reasons might be marginalized and overshadowed by the symbol’s new lack of meaning.
The county board has voted and it has now been left to the courts to decide whether or not the cross’s addition violates federal law, if the plaintiff and defendants do not settle out of court. No matter the outcome, the issue of the nature of religious symbols has emerged in the ongoing struggles between government regulations and civil liberties.