Judge Sides With Plaintiffs in Lawsuit Over Cross on LA County Seal

A judge sided with plaintiffs Thursday who claimed it was unconstitutional for Los Angeles County to restore a cross on its seal, marking a victory for a civil rights group in a long-running legal battle.

In 2014, the LA County Board of Supervisors chose to reinstate the cross on top of a representation of the San Gabriel Mission on the seal. The mission and other images appear on the symbol, first adopted in January 1957, modified in 2004 and again by the Board of Supervisors in 2014.

The ACLU of Southern California then filed a lawsuit challenging that decision, claiming adding the religious symbol violates the constitutional guarantee of the separation of church and state. The original seal had a cross over the Hollywood Bowl, but it was removed when the seal was redesigned in 2004 after the ACLU threatened legal action.

U.S. District Judge Christina A. Snyder issued her 55-page ruling Thursday, saying the cross "carries with it an aura of prestige, authority, and approval. By singling out the cross for addition to the seal, the county necessarily lends its prestige and approval to a depiction of one faith's sectarian imagery,"

The complaint filed in federal court by the American Civil Liberties  Union of Southern California alleged that the supervisors' Jan. 7, 2014,  decision to restore the cross was 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."

In a motion introduced by Supervisors Mike Antonovich and Don Knabe, the board voted 3-2 in 2014 to add a cross to the top of the San Gabriel  Mission on the county emblem, which is displayed on buildings, vehicles and  official communications. Antonovich and Knabe argued that restoring the cross is vital to the  historical accuracy of the seal.

Linda M. Burrow, a partner at the law firm of Caldwell Leslie & Proctor, and  Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California said the organization is pleased with the ruling

"We are heartened by the court's ruling because it recognizes that Los Angeles is a diverse county comprised of adherents of hundreds of faiths as well as non-believers, all of whom are entitled to be treated with equal dignity by their government," they said in a statement. "The placement of the cross on the official county seal promotes one religious sect above others and denies the principle that government represents all of the people, not just those who follow a particular faith."

Antonovich issued a statement Thursday, saying the ruling "ignores historical and architectural reality."

"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," Antonovich said. "As any California fourth-grade student knows, the San Gabriel Mission is an important icon to the region and the birthplace of Los Angeles County."

The supervisor said he would support an appeal.

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