LOS ANGELES — When Los Angeles County supervisors voted 3-2 to remove a Christian cross from its official seal, they didn't count on a Jewish radio personality taking up the symbol's cause.
But on one day's notice — and on a workday — thousands of people, Christians and otherwise, heeded the call of talk-show host Dennis Prager to show their support for the cross, a symbol of California's Christian heritage.
While 700 people packed a county supervisors hearing on the matter June 8 at the county hall of administration, more than 1,000 others demonstrated in the normally quiet intersection of Temple and Grand streets outside.
“If it weren't for this cross, I wouldn't have the freedom I have,” said Michael Fruchter, who wore a yarmulke and carried a sign that said “Jews for the Seal.” America, he said, is the “best place for any minority at any time in history.”
The county supervisors voted to remove the cross rather than fight a threatened lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. The situation has focused national attention on the ACLU's so-far quiet campaign to expunge all Christian symbols from civic life around the country.
Earlier this year, Redlands, Calif., capitulated to the organization's demands and in early June removed a cross from the city logo. Edmond, Okla., recently lost a protracted court battle and had to do the same. The day before the Los Angeles rally, just after the 60th anniversary of D-Day, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a cross erected in the Mojave Desert by World War I veterans as a war memorial violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
In Los Angeles County, the cross is located in a right-hand panel of the seal and commemorates the Spanish missionaries who came to the region in the 18th century. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors reached a deal with the ACLU to replace the cross with a depiction of a Spanish mission and indigenous people.
But county supervisor Michael Antonovich argued that any depiction of a mission without a cross “is not a mission.”
“If there is a mission,” Prager said during testimony at the supervisors meeting June 8, “it will look like a Taco Bell.”
Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony also pleaded in a letter with the board to reconsider. But the legislative body reaffirmed its decision after the protest, with the same three supervisors voting to remove the symbol.
Another debate was expected June 15 on whether to let voters decide the issue, though County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky demurred, saying if other key issues in American history such as desegregation had been left to the voters, they would have been defeated.
Meanwhile, the ACLU claims it will not try to remove an image of rosary beads surrounding the seal of the City of Los Angeles.
“It's not like the cross on the county seal — that's a universal representation of a religion,” a spokesman for the ACLU told the Los Angeles Daily News. “Looking at the city seal, most people wouldn't even realize it's a rosary there.”
Going to Court
But the county, which tried to avoid a legal battle with the ACLU, now will have to defend its decision in court. The Thomas More Law Center, a national public-interest law firm based in Ann Arbor, Mich., filed a suit in federal court seeking to keep the cross because its removal would show hostility to religion.
The basis for the lawsuit is that Christianity is being singled out for “disparate treatment,” said law center attorney Rob Muise, who is in charge of the case.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty offered pro bono legal services to the county if it does not remove the seal and is sued as a result.
“Anyone who thinks the ACLU doesn't have an anti-Christian agenda has been hiding under a rock,” Muise said. “The ACLU wants to remove any public recognition of our Christian history.“
He compared the ACLU's actions to the Nazis, who promptly eliminated “all public symbols of religion” when they invaded Poland in 1939.
Radio host Prager found a more recent comparison, calling the ACLU and the three county supervisors “leftist versions of the Taliban,” the former Muslim rulers of Afghanistan who blew up ancient Buddhist sculptures in that country.
Prager, who studied at Columbia University's Russian Institute, also warned that frequent rewriting of history was a “major characteristic of Soviet and other totalitarian regimes.”
“Los Angeles County is the largest county in America,” he said. “If it allows its past to be expunged by a vote of 3 to 2, America's past is sure to follow. If you want to know what happens after that, ask any student of the Soviet Union.”
The archivist of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Msgr. Francis Weber, agreed.
“The ACLU is anti-God,” Msgr. Weber said, adding that “this is just the beginning.”
Msgr. Weber has written several books on California's Catholic heritage and is director of Mission San Fernando, one of the original Spanish missions in California.
ACLU lawyers did not return the Register's calls for comment; however, a spokesman speaking on condition of anonymity described their rationale this way: “Under the Constitution, the government cannot endorse one religion over another. We sent a letter asking that the cross be replaced so that the county wouldn't be in violation of the U.S. Constitution.”
The Thomas More Center's Muise found such statements ironic. The ACLU is allowing an overtly religious symbol to remain on the seal — Pomona, a Roman agricultural goddess that represented the region's rural and agricultural character when the seal was designed in 1957.
That the ACLU has not sought to have that removed “comes down to their [anti-Christian] agenda,” Muise said.
Despite what Muise called a “flawed jurisprudence” by the courts on issues of religious symbolism, he said he liked his chances.
“I can stand before that court and make a very strong argument,” he said.
The public outcry in Los Angeles gives him hope.
“The ACLU may have misjudged the reaction to this,” he said.
One of those who voted to remove the cross was county supervisor Gloria Molina, a Catholic. Hispanics at the rally, many of whom came after hearing of the issue on a local Spanish radio station, carried signs saying “La Cruz, sí; Molina, no” (“The cross, yes; Molina, no”).
Molina was quoted by the Los Angeles Times as saying the California missions “were built by slaves.”
“There are many people who argue that the missions were not a great part of our history,” Molina said.
Msgr. Weber promptly wrote to her, calling her comments “hurtful, inaccurate and misleading.” He invited her to the San Fernando Mission, where he promised to show her “what the missions are all about.”
Molina's press secretary did not return calls seeking comment.
For now, barring the success of the Thomas More Law Center's suit, the cross will be expunged. But few think it will end there.
Muise went so far as to suggest that neither the crosses in Arlington National Cemetery nor some of the names of places in lands settled by the Spanish — San Francisco, Corpus Christi, Sacramento — were safe.
“Today it's crosses,” Msgr. Weber warned. “Tomorrow it's Christmas.”
Andrew Walther writes from Los Angeles.