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Tiny Symbol, Huge Fuss

June 08, 2004

Until last week, who besides the ACLU's lawyers and a handful of bureaucrats even knew that Los Angeles County's seal incorporates an itsy-bitsy cross, along with a Spanish galleon, a tuna, the Hollywood Bowl, oil derricks, a Roman goddess of fruit and more?

If any residents noticed the tiny cross -- or the seal itself, which then-Supervisor Kenneth Hahn designed in 1957 -- they didn't seem to care.

Today, however, crowds of residents, goaded by conservative talk show host Dennis Prager, are expected to storm the Hall of Administration, furious that the supervisors agreed June 1 to remove the cross and redesign the seal. The deal came after the ACLU pressured Redlands into eliminating a cross from its city logo in April and then threatened to sue Los Angeles County officials if they didn't do the same.

The civil liberties group has portrayed the presence of the cross on this cluttered government seal as a church-state issue of monumental constitutional importance, equal to mandatory school prayer. Hardly.

Nonetheless, the supervisors were right to agree. Their alternative was to squander tax dollars they don't have on a legal battle they'd probably lose -- if lawsuits over the seals of other cities and counties are a guide.

But an expensive and pointless legal battle is exactly what many residents are spoiling for. In recent days, supervisors say they have been deluged with phone calls and e-mails demanding that they reverse their decision and keep the cross. A motion before the board today from Supervisor Mike Antonovich would do just that; he and Supervisor Don Knabe opposed the ACLU proposal. As silly as the ACLU's obsession with government seals is, for the board to reverse course would be even sillier, ensuring that the matter lands in court.

The in-principle deal between the county and lawyers for the rights group is sensible and pragmatic. In place of the cross, the redesigned seal will recognize the county's missions and indigenous peoples. That's not rewriting or ignoring local history, despite Prager's histrionic insistence that it is. And given desperate local finances, the ACLU knows the county cannot afford to toss out all its letterhead or repaint the seal on its cars and trucks. Instead, the county will add the new seal to stationery when existing stocks are gone and to new county vehicles when old ones head to the junkyard.

Local residents still looking to protest could more usefully turn their attention to the county's dysfunctional hospitals, jails where inmates sometimes roam at will or an overburdened foster-care system in which too many kids receive abysmal service. Those are issues worth shouting about.

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