Adding a cross to the depiction of the San Gabriel Mission on the county seal, which was approved in a 3-2 vote by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors (after The Tidings went to press this week), could be problematic in view of today’s religiously diverse society, said local Catholic college legal and theological experts before the Jan. 7 decision.
Supervisors Michael Antonovich and Don Knabe proposed the motion to restore a cross to the official county seal Dec. 31, and they were supported by Mark Ridley-Thomas in this week’s vote. Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Gloria Molina voted against adding a rooftop cross to the image of the San Gabriel Mission, over raised concerns about the likelihood of lawsuits. L.A. County’s seal had a stand-alone cross symbol on it from 1957 to 2004, reflecting California’s missions heritage.
In 2004, acting on mounting pressure from critics who argued that the cross violated the constitutional separation of church and state, and facing a threatened ACLU lawsuit, county supervisors decided to remove the religious image in a 3-2 vote.
The cross was replaced with an image of Mission San Gabriel Arcangel minus its traditional rooftop cross, which at the time of the seal’s altering was missing from the actual church building due to earthquake retrofitting. The cross was re-erected on the San Gabriel Mission four years ago.
Supervisors Antonovich and Knabe contended in their motion that the current image of the mission on the seal is “artistically and architecturally inaccurate” due to the missing cross.
“We, therefore, move that the Board of Supervisors direct the Chief Executive Officer to make the county seal artistically, aesthetically and architecturally correct by placing the cross on top of the San Gabriel Mission in order to accurately reflect the cultural and historical role that the mission played in the development of the Los Angeles County region,” wrote Antonovich and Knabe in the motion.
As expressed in a Jan. 4 emailed statement from Antonovich’s office: “The actual San Gabriel Mission has a cross affixed to the top of the building. The image of the San Gabriel Mission currently on the Los Angeles County seal is missing this important architectural feature. This effort will simply fix what is currently inaccurate on our county seal.” Antonovich, quoted Jan. 8 in an L.A. Times article about the supervisors’ vote to restore the cross, remarked: “We are not adding, we are reflecting upon a historical event that occurred in the County of Los Angeles.”
The ACLU has pledged to fight any effort to add a cross to the county seal. “The county’s greatest strength is its diversity, religious and otherwise,” Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel of the ACLU of Southern California, said in a Jan. 1 L.A. Times article. “Placing a cross, the universal symbol of Christianity, back on the seal communicates that L.A. County favors one religion above all others and above the decision not to practice any.”
Aaron Caplan, constitutional law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, noted that if a religious symbol is introduced on a government document or emblem today, “courts probably find that more problematic than simply continuing to use a symbol that has been there in years prior. The introduction feels more like an endorsement of that religion.”
“We’re a more diverse society than we used to be,” observed Caplan. “The question a judge has to answer is: ‘What would a reasonable person think about this?’”
According to Caplan, a judge might lean toward imagining a reasonable person saying: “Why put only one religious symbol on an emblem? A reasonable person would consider this to be an endorsement of Christianity.”
However, Caplan added that he doesn’t think it’s a “slam dunk” decision, because it is possible in some circumstances for the government to display crosses for historic, rather than religious, reasons --- as in a government-owned art museum.
Scott Wood, clinical professor of law at Loyola Law School and director of the restorative justice project at Loyola Marymount University, backed the move to add a cross on the county seal, based on historical authenticity.
“I think the two supervisors are clearly correct,” said Wood. “The San Gabriel Mission is part of California history founded by Catholic Franciscan priests. It is entirely appropriate to have that historical evidence with the cross on the mission symbol displayed on the county seal.”
At the same time, however, he agrees with the recent decision by a federal judge in San Diego declaring that the government’s display of a 43-foot cross atop Mount Soledad in La Jolla is unconstitutional. Although his own Catholic father, who served as a naval aviator during World War II, is honored on a plaque at the Mount Soledad memorial, Wood told The Tidings: “I think that it’s inappropriate that the memorial is dominated by a cross. It should come down and be replaced by an American flag.”
As he explained: “I think it’s incumbent upon members of majority religions in the U.S. to be sensitive to the growing numbers of non-Christian people in our ever more diverse society, which also includes agnostics and atheists. We should endeavor to be in solidarity with people, not in conflict” as reflected in recent remarks by Pope Francis, said Wood.
Catholic historian Father Guillermo Garcia, Ph.D., assistant professor, department of religious studies at Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles, notes that is a historical fact that the California missions always had a cross placed on, next to or near the mission Church, which became the center of community life on the mission.
“If the County wants to use the [San Gabriel] Mission to portray what it was, then it must do so accurately,” said Father Garcia. “If the County wishes to portray what it is, then the question is, ‘What symbols best portray the diversity of this community?’ That is a much more difficult question to answer.”