Does the tiny, barely visible cross on the seal on the right below amount to an establishment of religion or give preferential treatment to a particular religion? Judge Christina A. Snyder, a federal court judge in Los Angeles, thinks so.
The 1957 seal of the County of Los Angeles (figure 3, on the left) featured a small cross over the Hollywood Bowl simply to acknowledge California’s past when 21 missions were established by Father Junipero Serra in the 1700s. However, in 2004 the cross was removed after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) threatened to sue the county, and by extension, the taxpaying citizens of that county. Although the cross was removed, an image of the San Gabriel Mission was added without its cross since the actual building was also without one at the time due to earthquake retrofitting (figure 2, in the center). The removed cross was then stolen, but later recovered in 2009. Since the cross had been restored to its rightful place atop the mission, Los Angeles County Supervisors Michael Antonovich and Don Knabe successfully pushed for the cross to be added to the county seal to allow for a more accurate depiction. (figure 1, on the right).
Once again, the ACLU and several misguided members of the clergy stepped in to save Los Angeles County from a tiny little cross affixed to its seal. Judge Snyder said that allowing the cross to remain would be placing “the County’s power, prestige, and purse behind a single religion, Christianity,” which would violate both the state and federal constitutions.
By invoking the Constitution, Judge Snyder seemed to imply that leaving the seal as it was would somehow be establishing Christianity as the official religion of Los Angeles County! This is patently ridiculous and demonstrates that the judge may know something about law, but she doesn’t understand history or know what “an establishment of religion” means. It does not mean the display of a nativity scene at Christmas time, the phrase “one nation under God” in the pledge of allegiance, or a practically microscopic little cross on a county seal. When the Founding Fathers passed the First Amendment in 1791 to prohibit Congress from enacting any law respecting an establishment of religion it meant two things. First, Congress could not pass any legislation which interfered with the established religions in the states (Yes, 7 of the 14 states had their own established faiths.) Second, Congress was prevented from creating a national church.
So what would an establishment of religion look like? As I explain in my new book, Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God: The Role of Christianity in the American Revolution (Available at CreateSpace and Amazon), if Congress ever passed a law establishing a religion it would have meant creating a church which received special privileges from the government and which were denied to all other religions. This could have included receiving public money or conferring certain advantages upon the church’s members such as the right to vote or hold office. This national church also could have demanded that the people accept its beliefs and adopt its practices. It may have even been able to force people into the pews on Sundays as well. This is what the First Amendment prohibited Congress from doing. However, beginning with the 1947 case of Everson v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court began the process of transforming the prohibition against an establishment of religion into a prohibition against almost any public expression or display of religious faith.
So no, Judge Snyder, a tiny little cross does not establish a religion or a preferred status for any religion. And no, ACLU, you are not protecting the people of Los Angeles County from a theocracy or some kind of potential religious persecution. By forcing the removal of the cross from the seal of the County of Los Angeles you are simply continuing an ongoing effort at the cultural cleansing of America’s religious heritage. Be careful what you wish for, however. You may find that it was America’s religious heritage which helped to promote the qualities of tolerance, equality, and respect for all which you claim to value so highly.