L.A. County Seal Is Unconstitutional, Rules Federal Judge

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on April 14, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

According to federal district judge Christina A. Snyder, the County of Los Angeles' Official Seal is unconstitutional. Controversy began when a group of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim congregation leaders represented by the ACLU sued the LA County Board in 2014, alleging that the addition of a tiny cross in the seal's imagery violated the Establishment Clause.

2014 Suit Against the Board

The ACLU sued the LA County Board in 2014 on behalf of several religious leaders who claimed that the defendants unlawfully inserted a Christian cross atop the seal's already existing depiction of San Gabriel mission's gable. See fig. 1. below.

Los Angeles County Official Seal

fig. 1. Note the cross atop the gable at right.

Establishment Clause

It's one of the most basic tenants of American jurisprudence: the state shouldn't inhibit or promote the belief one any particular religion or faith.

In her opinion, judge Snyder wrote that a "reasonable, objective observer" could see that the seal served a sectarian purpose despite there being an official explanation for the addition of the cross. Adding the cross to the seal "carries with it an aura of prestige, authority and approval. By singling out the cross for addition to the seal, the county necessarily lends its prestige and approval to a depiction of one faith's sectarian imagery."

L.A.'s Response

The county took the position that the addition of the cross was not intended as a promotion of Christianity, but as an educational tool meant to depict the historical significance of missions buildings in the state's history. In the view of the county, "Californians are conditioned to view missions as historic structures."

But the lawyers for the ACLU balked at this. "When you teach, you educate. When you put something on a seal, you promote," said Linda M. Burrow, attorney for the plaintiffs.

With her ruling, judge Snyder has granted the plaintiff's permanent injunction and the cross will likely be removed accordingly.

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