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Debate Over Crosses on City Seals Hits a Nerve

June 11, 2004|Sue Fox and Karima A. Haynes | Times Staff Writers

The city of San Luis Obispo has one -- tiny but unmistakable -- affixed to a tile roof above a mission. So does the city of San Gabriel. Santa Clara has two, one standing atop a mission bell tower and another on a lower roofline, while Carmel-by-the-Sea boasts three.

For decades, Latin crosses have adorned government seals, sometimes amid a jumble of other icons meant to reflect a community's history, faith or values. But after two California jurisdictions decided to scrap such images when threatened with ACLU lawsuits, the miniature crosses have spurred an intense debate over religion's place in public life that seems unlikely to fade anytime soon.

"I think it's a matter of time" before other cities are challenged, said Redlands Mayor Susan Peppler, whose city agreed in April to remove a cross from its cluttered logo, which also featured a church steeple, citrus groves and an open book. Peppler's advice to leaders of other municipalities: "Leave it alone until someone makes them take it off."

Erasing a cross, it now seems clear, is a politically perilous pursuit. What began as a murmur in Redlands (population 67,000) swelled into a full-throated roar this month after the American Civil Liberties Union took the fight to Los Angeles County, calling the small cross on the county seal an unconstitutional "endorsement of Christianity." When county supervisors voted last week to abandon the cross, the reaction was swift and furious.

Thousands of people, many incensed by reports on talk radio and Bill O'Reilly's warnings of "the ACLU's anti-Christian crusade" on the Fox News Channel, flooded the supervisors with calls to keep the cross.

More than 1,000 people showed up Tuesday at the county's Hall of Administration to protest the decision, with hundreds jamming into the board chambers to urge the supervisors to reconsider. By a 3-2 vote, the supervisors again decreed that the cross must go.

After reviewing relevant cases, lawyers for both Redlands and Los Angeles County concluded that they were unlikely to win a lawsuit challenging their respective crosses. Although the U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled on the question of religious symbols on government seals, lower courts have struck down seals depicting Latin crosses in several cases across the country.

"In general, people objecting to government use of crosses have won," said Douglas Laycock, a constitutional law professor at the University of Texas. "It is absolutely the central symbol of Christianity. It's implausible to say it's more secular than religious."

But the controversy remains. Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who supports keeping the cross, plans to introduce a motion next week asking his colleagues to put the matter on the ballot for a public vote.

Los Angeles County's decision appears to have touched a nerve with many who worry that removing a cross is akin to blotting out history. Whether the past includes Spanish missionaries settling in California or Puritans staking a claim to New England, much of American history is intimately entwined with religion.

"I think the ramifications of this could be seen not just in California, but across the country," said Jay Alan Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit law firm founded by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson. "It has sent the wrong message to cities that you can be bullied into a revisionist version of history."

The outcry prompted the city manager of San Juan Capistrano, Dave Adams, to scrutinize the city seal on his business card, which appeared to show a Franciscan missionary raising a crucifix to the heavens. But after getting a better look at the seal on a municipal truck, Adams was relieved to discover that the friar was simply pointing his index finger skyward.

Seals that depict missions or churches -- as long as they omit crosses -- are OK with the ACLU. The group will not object to the image of a rosary encircling the Los Angeles city seal.

"The question is: will somebody who looks at the seal believe that there's an improper association between the government and one religion?" said Ben Wizner, an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California. "It's about preventing the appearance of religious sponsorship."

As for whether the ACLU intends to pursue similar cases, spokesman Tenoch Flores said: "There's not a national seal campaign or anything like that." But he urged other jurisdictions to review their government logos "and ask whether they're in compliance with the Constitution."

So far, cities with crosses in their logos are taking a wait-and-see approach.

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