Los Angeles County violated the California constitution when it added a Christian cross to the official seal in 2014, a federal judge has ruled, dismissing arguments that the change was to promote historical accuracy.
The ruling means the county will have to go back to an older version of the seal that does not include the cross, though still features a Spanish mission as a nod to the region's Catholic roots.
Wednesday's ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed over the cross by Episcopalian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders in 2014 following a series of contentious public meetings in which they argued the cross illegally favored Christianity.
Several versions of the county seal have existed over the years, some with a cross and some without. The oldest version dates to 1887, when the area was primarily agricultural, and features a bunch of grapes.
The modern seal's design traces to 1957, when a cross was depicted floating over a stylized version of the Hollywood Bowl. Other icons within the seal included Pomona, goddess of gardens and fruit trees, a Spanish galleon, a tuna, a cow, engineering instruments, and oil derricks.
But in 2004, the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the county contending the cross symbolized an "impermissible endorsement of Christianity by the county."
County officials decided to negotiate, and meetings were held to get the public's input on a new design. Christian residents at the time said the redesign was an attack on their faith. One supervisor characterized it as a "religious frenzy" akin to an inquisition. Other county leaders, however, said the 1957 seal reflected the local history.
Ultimately, the Roman goddess in the seal was replaced with an indigenous woman, the cross was removed, but a depiction of the San Gabriel mission was added. At the time, there was no cross on the mission — it had been lost in an earthquake retrofit.
In 2009, a cross was again placed on the roof of the mission. By 2013, some county supervisors said a cross should be added to the seal to be "aesthetically and architecturally accurate."
The board eventually voted to add the cross to the seal 3-2. Weeks later, the ACLU and faith leaders filed suit.
Under the California constitution, lawmakers can not use public money to aid any religious group or church.
"The court emphasizes that this case does not simply involve a government entity's continued use of a longstanding symbol or display containing a Latin cross. Rather, plaintiffs challenge the County's decision to add a cross to a county seal that...had contained no sectarian symbols for nearly a decade," the judge said.
There was no benefit outside of religion for adding the cross to the seal — especially when no other changes were made, the judge added.
"Unlike textbooks or educational guidelines, the county's seal is not an educational tool, but a symbolic and representative one, not unlike a flag or badge," the judge said. "It carries with it an aura of prestige, authority, and approval."
In a statement, a lawyer for the faith leaders and the ACLU said they were heartened by the court's ruling.
"It recognizes that Los Angeles is a diverse county comprised of adherents of hundreds of faiths as well as non-believers, all of whom are entitled to be treated by equal dignity by their government," the attorney said. "The placement of the cross on the official county seal promotes one religious sect above others and denies the principle that government represents all of the people, not just those who follow a particular faith."