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Seal barking

Squabbles over the L.A. County emblem have done little but divert attention from more pressing issues.

December 08, 2007

It is part of a decades-old ritual in Los Angeles elementary schools: the classroom discussion of the county seal and its beloved constituent parts, like the cow (named "Pearlette"), the galleon (the "San Salvador") and the tuna fish (unnamed).

Just kidding. Until three years ago, pretty much no one knew (or cared) what was on the Los Angeles County seal. That changed when the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California targeted a tiny cross in the seal's upper right-hand corner, next to two tiny stars, just above the tiny Hollywood Bowl. Too religious, the ACLU lawyers said. Get rid of it or we'll sue.

The county offered up a new cross-less seal that also banished the Roman goddess Pomona (we can't show favoritism to pagans, you know) and replaced oil derricks with a cross-less view of Mission San Gabriel. People went berserk. The deaths of inmates in county custody, or patients at county hospitals, or children in county-supervised foster homes attract only a fraction of the invective that the change to the ridiculously insignificant county seal brought.

Think what you will about that cross: It was a historical relic no more religious in nature than the words "Los Angeles"; or it was a sign of religious favoritism intolerable to non-Christians who had to send their tax money to the county. One way or the other, the Board of Supervisors decided, on a contentious 3-2 vote, to avoid litigation and alter the seal.

But because it was never really about the seal, and was instead the latest battle in a long-running legal war between the ACLU and the Thomas More Law Center, litigation went forward anyway, with the center suing on behalf of a Christian county employee.

Ernesto Vasquez claimed that the act of removing the cross exhibited unconstitutional hostility toward his religion. But the suit undermined the argument that the cross was of mere historical relevance. If it wasn't religious in the first place, removing it couldn't very well be anti-religious. If removing it was anti-religious, then the symbol was religious -- and unacceptable on a government building. For the suit to succeed, a court would have to find that it was unconstitutional to compel an employee to walk into a government building without a cross on it.

Two courts rejected the plaintiff's argument. This week, the U.S. Supreme Court wisely declined to take up the case.

Los Angeles County has more substantial problems to worry about. It's time to move on -- and relegate the county seal to the obscure place that it once had in the public consciousness.

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