Los Angeles County supervisors on Tuesday ended an emotional debate over the symbolism of the tiny gold cross on the county seal by deciding to remove it rather than defend it against a threatened ACLU lawsuit.
Advised by county attorneys that the cross might not withstand a court challenge, the Board of Supervisors voted to seek a compromise with the ACLU -- perhaps by replacing the cross with images of a Spanish mission and Native Americans.
The closed-session decision came after an hour of spirited public debate that split the five-member board. Most speakers, including a pair of Los Angeles City Council members and a bearded man who earnestly told the board that God had spoken to him for the last seven years, favored keeping the cross.
"Where does it all end?" lamented Supervisor Don Knabe, who said that changing the county seal would be tantamount to "rewriting history" in a region shaped by Catholic missionaries. "I do not think we should capitulate. As the largest county in America, if we roll over, what's next?"
But other supervisors indicated that they wanted to avoid a potentially costly court fight, which Gloria Molina predicted, "We are going to lose."
The cross -- along with a cow, a tuna fish, a Spanish galleon, the Hollywood Bowl and the Goddess Pomona cradling an armful of fruit -- has adorned the county seal since 1957. The American Civil Liberties Union argued that the official insignia, which appears on everything from county vehicles and meeting rooms to employee badges and telephone books, was unconstitutional because it reflects "an impermissible endorsement of Christianity by the county government" and is a violation of the 1st Amendment.
In a May 19 letter, ACLU attorneys warned the Board of Supervisors to remove the cross or face a lawsuit.
"We realize this is not the most important civil liberties issue in our society," Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU's Southern California chapter, said Tuesday in an interview. "But it does make some people feel unwelcome. And we feel the county seal should be welcoming."
Knabe proposed that county lawyers defend the county seal from "frivolous litigation," a motion supported by two Los Angeles City Council members who made their way over from City Hall to testify.
"I believe this seal in no way favors the practice or promotion of any religion over another, just as the Goddess Pomona certainly does not encourage the act of pagan worship," said Councilwoman Janice Hahn, whose father, the late county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, designed the seal. Earlier in the day, she had tried unsuccessfully to persuade her City Council colleagues to support an emergency resolution calling on the Board of Supervisors to keep the cross.
Councilman Tom LaBonge also appeared before the board, calling the cross "part of the history of who was here before."
But a review of the transcript from a 1956 Board of Supervisors meeting reveals that, at the time, the cross was intended as a religious symbol. After some speakers joked about what they considered an emaciated cow, Kenneth Hahn praised the seal for depicting "the cultural and educational and the religious life of this county."
Even then, the inclusion of the cross offended some residents. One Beverly Hills man, Burton Zipser, wrote to the Board of Supervisors: "It is fundamental to the American way of life that the state and the church are separated. If we do not permit any references in our educational institutions, let us not give token approval through our government bodies."
Federal courts have, on more than one occasion, found the use of a cross in a government seal unconstitutional. Among those told to remove crosses in the 1990s were Bernalillo County in New Mexico, and the cities of Rolling Meadows and Zion in Illinois.
Some jurisdictions have acted without being sued. In California, the city of Redlands recently agreed to remove the cross from its logo after the ACLU threatened legal action. The ACLU then received calls complaining about the Los Angeles County seal.
On Tuesday, the debate swung from recitations of 18th-century history (from Hahn) to reminders of the county's fame via the television series "Baywatch" (from LaBonge). It included snippets of Spanish and Latin, and even featured testimony from a lawyer representing the family of the artist who drew the seal, Millard Sheets.
The lawyer, Kenneth J. Kleinberg, told the board that he was an atheist and a "card-carrying" ACLU member but insisted that the cross was not meant as a religious icon but rather a symbol of the missions.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky suggested replacing the cross with a rendering of a Spanish mission, or some other historical image.
Yaroslavsky, who is Jewish, asked his colleagues to "try to walk a mile in the other guy's shoes," whatever their feelings about the cross. "I don't personally believe that any religious symbol on any government seal is appropriate," he said.
But Molina, who is Catholic, quietly pointed out that "there are many people who argue that the missions were not a great part of our history. The reality is that they were built by slaves."
That may explain the compromise proposed late Tuesday, when county lawyers phoned their ACLU counterparts. The county offered to replace the cross with a depiction not only of a mission, but also of the indigenous people who were here before the Spanish arrived, Ripston said.
"We're quite pleased," she said. "The county seal will reflect all the people who live here."