A federal court ruled Thursday that the Los Angeles County supervisors violated the Constitution in 2014 when they voted to restore a small cross to the county seal. The cross appeared on a depiction of a historic mission building.
The plaintiffs, who included a coalition of liberal religious leaders, sued the county on the grounds that the cross violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The court, agreed, and added that the seal violated the No Aid Clause of the California constitution, which prevents the government from conferring a “sectarian” benefit.
Judge Christina A. Snyder, a Bill Clinton appointee, presided.
The 2014 seal replaced one approved in 2004, which had dropped a cross from the seal after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) objected. After a contentious debate, the cross was added, as a supposedly historic symbol.
The U.S. District Court for the Western Division of the Central District of California granted a permanent injunction against the seal. The key was not just the presence of a cross on the seal — which might have been tolerable if it had been continued from an earlier use — but the fact that the Board specifically decided to add the cross. Though there was a secular reason for adding the cross, i.e. to show history, that did not blunt its sectarian meaning, the court said.
Judge Snyder rejected an argument by the plaintiffs that the Board had violated the No Preference Clause of the state constitution, but found that it did violate the federal Establishment Clause, noting that a “reasonable, objective observer” would see a sectarian purpose in the addition of the cross to the seal, regardless of the official explanation.
The Los Angeles Times reports that the Board of Supervisors was divided in its reaction to the ruling, with retired Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky hailing the decision.