Written by Don Byrd
A federal judge in California has ruled the addition of a cross to the official seal of Los Angeles County violates the separation of church and state as enshrined in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. The lawsuit challenges a decision by the county in 2014 to add a cross to the seal’s depiction of the San Gabriel Mission. The county argued the cross was being added solely for the secular purpose of architectural accuracy. But the court ruled that a reasonable observer would likely conclude the change – coming just 10 years after the cross was removed from the seal in response to complaints that it amounted to an improper government endorsement of Christianity – had a religious purpose and advanced a religious perspective.
Here are excerpts from the judge’s opinion.
[A]n objective observer assessing the Board’s purpose could not ignore the County’s nearly fifty-year long depiction of an unadorned cross on its seal prior to the 2004 revisions, nor could such an observer fail to recognize the Board’s 2004 decision to remove the Latin cross following a series of contentious public hearings wherein, as one Supervisor put it at the time, the public’s vocal objection “was clearly . . . a religious one.”
Rather than finding a concern for artistic or historical accuracy behind the County’s addition of the cross, an objective observer, familiar with the seal’s history, “would probably suspect that the Count[y] w[as] simply reaching for any way to keep a religious [symbol] on [an emblem] . . . constitutionally required to [display] religious neutrality.”
Accordingly, the Court concludes that an “ ‘informed and reasonable’ observer who is ‘familiar with the history of the government practice at issue’ ” 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.
The court also found the addition of the cross to the county seal violated provisions of the California Constitution.