Monday, November 15, 2004

A group of outraged Angelenos is gathering signatures to restore a tiny cross to the county seal after the board of supervisors recently voted to remove it.

The Committee to Support the Los Angeles County Seal is aiming to collect 341,212 signatures by March 1, which would force the board to enact an ordinance protecting the original seal from any changes not approved by the voters.

“The response has been startling,” said David Hernandez, a former Republican congressional candidate who leads the committee. “Across the board, across ethnic lines, religious denominations, party lines, the support for this is unbelievable.”

The 3-2 board vote to eliminate the cross came in response to a May 19 letter from the American Civil Liberties Union, which threatened to file a lawsuit unless the cross was removed from the 50-year-old seal.

The ACLU argued that the simple gold cross, described as the “Latin cross,” was a “sectarian religious symbol that represents the beliefs of one segment of the county’s diverse population.”

At a June hearing, hundreds of demonstrators from a variety of religious backgrounds rallied outside the county building in support of keeping the cross. In testimony before the board, dozens of supporters argued that the cross was a symbol of California history and religious freedom.

“Christianity plays a major role in the history of this county. To take that cross off is a symbol of something terrible happening,” said Los Angeles talk-show host Dennis Prager, who is Jewish.

In a seven-page opinion, however, the county counsel’s office said the ACLU likely would win a legal challenge because the cross violated the separation between church and state.

Opponents produced opinions from law professors and legal foundations arguing that the seal was constitutional, pointing to the cross’ historic significance. Even so, supervisors Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, Gloria Molina and Zev Yaroslavsky voted to change the seal.

“A seal should be a unifying symbol,” said Mr. Yaroslavsky during a supervisors’ meeting Nov. 3. “It should not be a symbol that divides us.”

At the same meeting, supervisors Don Knabe and Mike Antonovich argued unsuccessfully that the cross’ removal should be delayed until after the results of the petition effort. Instead, the board voted 3-2 to proceed with the changes immediately.

Tony Bell, spokesman for Mr. Antonovich, said county officials had placed the cost of changing the seal at $700,000, although he estimated that the price tag would be much higher. The seal can be found on county buildings, stationery, sheriff’s cars, utility trucks, uniform patches and other items.

Already, the Web sites of the three supervisors who voted to remove the cross feature a new seal with several changes. The old seal depicts a series of monographs that include the Greek goddess Pomona, oil derricks and a tiny cross next to two stars. The new seal replaces the goddess Pomona with an American Indian girl holding a bowl of grain, removes the cross and the oil derricks, and adds a depiction of what is supposed to be the San Gabriel Mission.

Supporters of the old seal aren’t impressed.

“The new seal is horrific,” said Mr. Knabe, who voted against the change. “I’ve never seen a Catholic mission depicted without a cross. It looks like a grain silo or a Wal-Mart, not a mission.”

Polls show the old seal has overwhelming support. A June survey conducted by the Los Angeles Daily News found that 94 percent of respondents wanted to the seal unchanged.

Supporters of the old seal say they have gathered 40,000 of the needed signatures. Many of the petition-gatherers are active Catholics, Christians and Jews who are bringing petitions to their churches and synagogues.

“People tell us that if Los Angeles County isn’t able to withstand this challenge, then there won’t be any municipality anywhere that will be able to stand up to it,” Mr. Hernandez said. “This is a line in the sand.”

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