Sunday, April 10, 2016

Religious Establishment in a County Seal

Part of the Former County Seal with
Cross Over the LA Bowl
This past Thursday in Los Angeles County a group of religious leaders won a case in banning a Latin Cross from being included in the County's seal.  Los Angeles County has had a large history in deciding if a cross could or could not be included on the seal.  Back in 1957, the county created its seal with a cross over the Hollywood bowl.

Years later in 2004, the ACLU filed suit. County Supervisor Michael Antonovich supported the seal with the cross explaining that "the cross is a part of a historical fact with the founding of the County of Los Angeles, just as the Star of David on the Sheriff’s badge is a reflection of the Judaic heritage and the laws of Moses." Nevertheless the county board decided to create a new seal without the religious reference in a 3-2 vote.  It cost the county $700,000 in all to change the seal. Five years later in 2009,  county Supervisors Michael Antonovich and Don Knabe proposed adding a cross to the seal when a cross was placed on the Mission San Gabriel Archangel in downtown LA since this mission itself was featured on the seal.  The supervisors subsequently started a motion in 2013 to update the seal.  The supervisors upheld the motion in a 3-2 vote.  After this vote, local religious leaders filed suit in the case that was decided on this past Thursday.  The religious leaders believed that including the cross endorsed Christianity over other religions. They argued that this case was one regarding both freedom to practice and Establishment since the religious symbol on the county seal violated the leaders’ right to religious freedom under the Establishment Clause by endorsing a religion.  In siding with the religious leaders, U.S. District Court Judge Justice Snyder decided that “an ‘informed and reasonable’ observer ... would perceive the county's addition of the cross to the 2004 seal to constitute approval or endorsement of a particular set of religious beliefs.” Justice Snyder also noted that “federal courts have consistently held that public-interest concerns are implicated when a constitutional right has been violated because all citizens have a stake in upholding the Constitution.”  In disagreeing with Snyder's opinion, Supervisor Antonovich said "The court failed to see that the board corrected the inaccurate depiction of the San Gabriel Mission on the seal with an architecturally accurate version that featured a small cross – which of course the mission has."
Proposed Seal with Cross Above Mission 
Seal Approved in 2004 without Religious Reference

Does including a depiction of the cross to better represent the San Gabriel Mission create an establishment of religion by the County and violate everyone else's freedom to religion? Do you agree with the court's decision to keep the cross out of the seal?

In considering whether the District Court’s decision to keep the cross out of the representation of the San Gabriel Mission on the L.A. County seal was unconstitutional, there were many things I thought about.  Firstly, I agree with the court’s decision in 2004 to take the cross out of the seal because having the cross represented on the seal individually did seem to represent an establishment of religion in the County; by only including a Christian symbol, the county seems to be endorsing one religious group which certainly violates the establishment clause.  However, in this case the cross is not being represented alone but rather it is being placed on the seal as part of the San Gabriel Mission, as it is architecturally represented in actuality.  I see no problem with wanting to represent a feature on the seal more accurately.  However, Supervisor Antonovich also argued for the cross on behalf of its historical significance.  While I agree that the cross may have had historical significance in the county, as was stated in Marsh v. Chambers, “standing alone, historical patterns cannot justify contemporary violations of constitutional guarantees” (253).  Unfortunately for those advocating for the cross in this case, aside from depicting the mission more accurately, no case is made beyond historical significance.  Thus, the question in this case for me is, is there an advancement to the common interest of LA in including the cross on the mission? I found that there was no major benefit to society in adding the cross aside from architectural accuracy.  However, while missing out on having the mission be represented totally accurately would not directly harm the public, including the cross could.  Firstly, by including the cross on the mission on the seal, the county seems to be focusing more on the mission’s religion significance rather than the good that it does for the county.  I think that doing so is wrong as the focus should be the good that the mission does, rather than the religion that supports it.  Secondly, changing the seal in 2004 cost the county $700,000, how much would it cost the county this time and where would that money be coming from?  In answering the first question, I imagine the cost of changing the seal would be about the same as last time, if not more because of inflation.  Also, the money to change the seal would also come out of the pockets of the tax payers, which seems unfair to those who do not support including the cross.  Both of these factors could certainly be interpreted as the L.A. County’s Establishment of religion on the seal.  Considering all these things, while I do not think that adding a cross on the San Gabriel Mission on the County seal would be infringing on anyone’s freedom to religion, I do think that doing so would be representing religion in a way that could be seen as an establishment.  Therefore, I agree with the court’s decision.  Do you?


Sarah A said...

I agree with you, Liz. I think you make some great points; specifically, I think the only reason to have the cross is accuracy to the the monument, and that for me is not enough incentive to reinstate the cross. The money that was taken to remove teh cross was not inconsequential- reinstating the cross would, as you point out, cost money, potentially more than it did in 2004. There should not be moves made towards making the symbols more christian centered than they already are.

Jim R said...

I agree with Liz, but along a different line of thinking.

The town seal is a symbol that should represent the town and its citizens. This seal can also be used as a seal of approval for various regulations and historical events. By including a cross on the seal, you are showing that there is a religious and a secular approval with each marker that is placed around Los Angeles or stamped on each bill that passes the county government. The mixture of these two duties represents a breach in separation.

Caroline S. said...

I agree with everyone's comments. The addition of a cross is simply unconstitutional. I do not think that this violates the Free Exercise Clause in any way because the purpose of the seal is to represent the City of Los Angeles- which is not solely populated by Christians. The mission may in fact be incredibly influential, however the inclusion of the cross would imply endorsement on behalf of the city of Los Angeles. Reasonable observers, who are not Christian or are non-believers may not feel as though they are included as citizens of LA. This is incredibly important while examining Establishment because the establishment of religion means that people who are not of that faith might feel as though their rights might be infringed upon or not respected because they do not adhere to the faith of the Established religion. The founders created this Constitution because they and their ancestors leaved in fear and were subject to intense persecution for their beliefs. This country was founded on the principle that everyone is free to express their beliefs and not be subject to persecution as a minority. I believe that the addition of the cross might cause citizens to belief that they were not a part of the community of LA and thus cause civil unrest and unfair standards between believers and nonbelievers.

Kiriko Masek said...

I agree that the inclusion of the cross on the seal was unconstitutional. I believe that either all religious symbols should be represented or none at all. By including the cross on the seal, the city is holding Christianity to higher importance in comparison to the other religions present within Los Angeles. I do understand that Christianity is an important part of the city's history and this is what compelled them to include the cross on the seal. However, by including the cross and no symbols of other religions on the seal, people could feel that Christianity is being favored and represented more than the other religions that they may believe in.

Richard Shin said...

I think that the inclusion of the cross should have not been seen as unconstitutional. The seal with the cross included does not promote religion. It is secular and comparable to how on a one dollar bill it says "In God We Trust". The seal is to represent the county of LA and people are into religion. The part of the seal with the building with the cross can mean that people no matter what religion take their own religion seriously. The cross has been secularized, in which it depends on what the people of LA would have thought if they actually saw the seal.