Opinion + Voices

UCLA faculty voice: Keep cross off the Los Angeles County seal

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Los Angeles County seal
Los Angeles County

A federal judge is expected to rule soon on the issue of whether or not Los Angeles County's official seal is unconstitutional because it shows a cross on top of the San Gabriel Mission.

Zev Yaroslavsky is executive director of the Los Angeles Initiative at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and the Department of History. He served on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors from 1994 to 2014. This op-ed was published recently in the Los Angeles Times.

When I was a boy growing up in Boyle Heights, I had an unobstructed view of the City Hall tower from our apartment on Breed Street. Each year during the Christmas season, our city lit up its seat of government in the shape of a cross. I remember wondering why the city was favoring one religion over others, including my own. In 1978, the California Supreme Court ruled that lighting the City Hall tower in the shape of a cross was a violation of the “no preference” clause of the state Constitution, and the city was prohibited from displaying the cross again.

As a Los Angeles County supervisor, I was confronted with an analogous issue. The county’s official seal included a Latin cross that, by the county’s own admission, was placed there to symbolize religion. This constituted a transparent endorsement and preference for one religion and thus violated the federal and state constitutions, respectively.

In 2004, the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to challenge the constitutionality of the seal unless the county removed the cross. County lawyers advised the Board of Supervisors that it would likely lose such a lawsuit. Along with my colleagues Gloria Molina and Yvonne Burke, I voted to uphold the Constitution and remove the cross from the county seal. The debate was contentious and ugly. I was accused of being anti-Christian, while my two Christian colleagues were accused of selling out their own religion in favor of the “godless ACLU.”

Prompted by conservative talk radio hosts and clergy, thousands of people attended the board hearings and bombarded the supervisors with demands to keep the cross. I received more than 5,000 emails, hundreds of letters and countless phone calls, almost all supporting the retention of the cross. The arguments were principally religious in nature, asserting that removing the cross was anti-Christian. Some questioned why we were removing the cross but retaining the Roman goddess Pomona, who adorned the center of the seal. We were choosing paganism over Christianity, they said. Others argued that removing the cross ignored the contributions of the Franciscan missionaries to the culture and history of our region.

In the summer of 2004, the board voted 3 to 2 to replace the cross with a likeness of the San Gabriel Mission. It also replaced the goddess Pomona with a Native American woman to honor the early inhabitants who lived here long before the Europeans arrived, a part of our history that was conspicuously ignored in the older seal.

While the board discussed whether to show the side of the mission with a cross, it expressly chose not to. It would have made no sense to remove one cross only to replace it with another. It was our view that the new seal could acknowledge the missionaries’ contribution without a Latin cross. That seal was adopted and remained the county’s official emblem for nearly a decade.

Then, in 2014, a new board majority voted 3 to 2 to put the cross back on the seal, this time placing it atop the mission building. As a result, the county was sued by a coalition of scholars and Christian, Muslim and Jewish clergy who objected to the restoration of the cross on federal and state constitutional grounds.

Last week, a federal judge heard arguments from both sides, and she is expected to rule on the seal's constitutionality in the weeks ahead.

The county argues that the mission is a cultural symbol, not a religious one. It also says that a mission without a cross is not recognizable as a mission. That notion is utterly false. Do the people of San Fernando, whose seal includes a view of its mission without a cross, scratch their heads in befuddlement? I don’t think so. Besides, the county seal displayed a crossless San Gabriel Mission for nearly 10 years without sowing widespread confusion over its identity.

It’s nearly impossible to avoid the conclusion that, by adding the cross, the county’s intention — no matter what it claims in court — is to express preference for or even endorse one religion.

It’s true that Californians of all stripes recognize that missions are a part of our state’s culture and history. They also know that the missions were religious outposts whose principal purpose was to convert California’s indigenous population to Christianity. The 2004 Board of Supervisors respected that dichotomy when it chose to recognize the role of the missions in the development of our county without enshrining the symbol of Christianity in our county’s seal.

Our county seal should be a unifying emblem that all Los Angeles residents can call their own, and the 2004 seal accomplished just that. It should be restored.

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