Non-profit law firm seeks Supreme Court review of decision to remove cross from LA County seal
The Thomas More Law Center announced on Oct. 2 that it has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review a ruling by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that led to a 2004 decision by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to remove a small cross from the county seal.
Ernesto Vasquez, a Los Angeles County employee, sued the county in 2004, alleging that the decision to remove the cross was an act of hostility toward Christianity that violated the First Amendment guarantee of separation of church and state.
In October 2004, U.S. District Court Judge S. James Otero dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that Vasquez did not have standing to sue and that the inclusion of a Spanish mission on the seal showed that the county was not hostile to religion. In May 2007, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, though ruling that Vasquez did have standing to sue, upheld Otero’s dismissal of the suit. The appellate court said Vasquez’s claim that the First Amendment’s “establishment clause” had been violated by removing the cross lacked merit, and that the county had a legitimate reason to remove the cross from its seal -- to avoid future legal challenges.
Instead of appealing the Ninth Circuit ruling, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to change the county seal under threat of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU said the cross on the old county seal represented a government endorsement of religion. The new seal replaced the cross with an image of the San Gabriel Mission church (without its bell tower or cross). The new seal also replaced an image of the goddess Pomona with one of an Indian woman.
During debate over the county seal on June 1, 2004, Supervisor Gloria Molina said keeping the cross would lead to a legal challenge the county could not win. But Molina didn’t seem to like the idea of putting a mission on the seal, either. "There are many people who argue that the missions were not a great part of our history,” she said. “The reality is that they were built by slaves."
Supervisor Janice Hahn (whose father, deceased supervisor Kenneth Hahn, designed the seal in 1957) argued that "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."
In a June 4, 2004 letter to the supervisors, Cardinal Roger Mahony argued that "to remove the cross would be to deny the historical record. It would not make any more sense than deleting the Mayflower because of its Puritan passengers, the figure Jedediah Smith because of his Mormon belief or the Star of David because of its relationship to Judaism."
Thomas More’s president and chief counsel Richard Thompson said in an Oct. 2 statement, “The cross on the LA seal merely represented the history and heritage of LA County; it was not placed on the seal to promote Christianity.”