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CATHY YOUNG

Secularism gone awry in battle over LA's seal

IF YOU LOOK closely at the Los Angeles County official seal -- preferably through a magnifying glass -- you will see, among other things, a tiny image of a cross. But not for long. Last week the county Board of Supervisors voted to remove it under threat of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU claimed that the cross, meant to symbolize the churches and Catholic missions that are such a large part of the county's history, represented "an impermissible endorsement of Christianity by the county government" and thus violated the constitutional prohibition on the establishment of religion. The seal, adopted in 1957, will be changed at huge public expense.

While I am disturbed by recent attempts to turn "secularism" -- the principle that religious beliefs should not be imposed on public policy -- into a dirty word, this is precisely the kind of thing that gives secularism a bad name.

To be fair, the argument that the cross stands for historical heritage rather than religious belief has also been used to defend far more dubious intrusions of religious symbolism into the public square, most notably the case of the Ten Commandments monument installed by former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore at the Alabama State Judicial Building last year. But there are some crucial differences.

Under existing legal precedent, for instance, an image of the Ten Commandments in a court building is acceptable as long as it is accompanied by other images. A figure of Moses with the two tablets is part of a frieze at the US Supreme Court building -- along with the figures of other historical lawgivers, including Confucius and Hammurabi. The Ten Commandments sculpture in the Alabama courthouse stood alone.

By this standard, the cross on the offending seal certainly should have passed muster. The largest and central image on the seal is that of Pomona, ancient Roman goddess of gardens and fruit trees. As some have caustically pointed out, no one has claims that her depiction endorses paganism.

Other images include the Hollywood Bowl, a cow, a Spanish galleon, and three oil derricks that dwarf the cross and are placed directly above it. (Maybe one could detect a certain symbolism in that, but it wouldn't be a very reverent symbolism.)

There is also the matter of intent. In the Alabama case, Moore explicitly stated that the purpose of the Ten Commandments monument was to make a statement about the Judeo-Christian religious beliefs as the "moral foundation" of American law. (In Moore's own judicial practice, this translated into citing biblical injunctions against homosexuality to strip a lesbian mother of child custody.) In the Los Angeles dispute, a transcript from a 1956 Board of Supervisors meeting shows supervisor Kenneth Hahn, who designed the seal, saying that it depicted "the cultural and educational and the religious life of this county."

If this innocuous comment is the strongest available evidence that the cross was meant as an official endorsement of Christianity, the ACLU clearly has too much time on its hands.

UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, who on many occasions has strongly defended the separation of church and state, comments in his weblog, The Volokh Conspiracy: "Religion is a fundamental part of California history, as it is part of the history of the country as a whole. Courts must distinguish references that will be seen as endorsing religions from references that simply recognize religion's role in American history -- and the seal seems to me to be well on the side of history, not endorsement." Volokh also reasonably wonders where this crusade will go next.

Will the secularist zealots want to change the names of cities that contain religious references -- Santa Fe (Holy Faith), Providence, Corpus Christi? Or, for that matter, Los Angeles, which means "the angels" in Spanish and is derived from the name of the original settlement, "The Town of Our Lady the Queen of Angels"?

Many Americans today believe that secularist forces in this country are implacably hostile to all things religious, particularly Christian, to the point of wanting to purge our culture and our history of all traces of Christianity.

This exaggerated perception is exploited by religious extremists who really would like to undo the separation of church and state -- who believe, for instance, that same-sex civil marriage should be illegal because the Bible condemns homosexuality. When secularists go after a tiny cross on a county seal or Christmas decorations at a firehouse, they lend substance to the "religious persecution" complex -- and play right into the extremists' hands.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe. 

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