Andrew G. Fried
The First Amendment of our nation’s Constitution establishes five rights that the founding fathers considered so important, they listed them first in the Bill of Rights. Among them are guarantees of free speech, a free press, freedom to assemble, the right to petition our government when we have a grievance, and the right to freely exercise the religion of our own individual choosing.
The religious rights in the First Amendment are covered consecutively in two clauses known as the establishment clause and the free exercise clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Seems pretty clear, right? But as we’ve seen yet again in the latest debate over whether a Latin cross can be added to the Los Angeles County seal, sometimes creative interpretations of the establishment clause muddy the waters.
The county Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 on Jan. 7 to add a Latin cross to the depiction of the San Gabriel Mission shown on the county seal. A cross had been removed from the seal in 2004 amid debate and the threat of litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union over whether its presence violated the establishment clause. It didn’t then, and it doesn’t now.
In voting to add the cross to the seal, Supervisors Michael D. Antonovich (who represents the Santa Clarita Valley), Don Knabe and Mark Ridley-Thomas recognized that this isn’t a question of religion. It’s a question of history.
The supervisors didn’t adopt Christianity as the county’s official religion, nor did they violate anyone’s right to practice the religion of their own choosing. Rather, the supervisors made an appropriate, historically accurate nod to the role the missions played in the development of Southern California as we know it.
The San Gabriel Mission was at the center of Los Angeles when it was established in 1771. From 1775 to 1803, Frs. Antonio Cruzado and Miguel Sanchez made the San Gabriel Mission one of the most successful in California.
Over the next 20 years, Fr. Jose Zalvidea continued their work and also introduced large-scale viticulture (cultivation of grapes) to Los Angeles County and California — which today has become a $20-billion-plus industry in our state. Ultimately, the San Gabriel Mission had the largest vineyard in early California.
Pre-2004 county seal
According to the California Missions Resource Center, “Starting with only 128 animals in 1772, the (San Gabriel) Mission herd reached 42,350” head of cattle and sheep at its peak. “Over its active life, San Gabriel was far more productive than any other mission in California, harvesting over 353,000 bushels of wheat, barley, corn, beans, peas, lentils and garbanzos,” thus contributing key components to the economic foundation of Los Angeles County.
Therefore, the San Gabriel Mission certainly belongs on the Los Angeles County seal, which reflects the history of the region.
The county seal prior to September 2004 included a cross, but the San Gabriel Mission was not included. When the seal was redesigned in 2004, the cross was removed and the mission was added. At that time, the mission was undergoing earthquake damage repairs, and its cross had been removed. After completion of the restoration in 2009, the cross was placed back on top of the mission.
Unfortunately, some individuals and organizations want to treat the addition of a Latin cross to the county seal as a “separation of church and state” issue. Inevitably, we can expect that some overly litigious individual or organization will file a lawsuit seeking to stop the county from including the cross on the seal.
But there’s already legal precedent, from the nation’s highest court, correctly recognizing that the mere presence of such a symbol doesn’t trample on anyone’s First Amendment rights, nor does it constitute a governmental establishment of a religion. In the Supreme Court decision of Salazar v. Buono (2010), Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the court’s plurality opinion, stated: “The goal of avoiding governmental endorsement (of religion) does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm.”
To depict the mission and history accurately, the cross should be represented on the seal, not as a religious statement but as a historical one.
Andrew G. Fried is an Agua Dulce resident and president of Safe Action for the Environment Inc., as well as a former three-term president of the Agua Dulce Town Council. His commentary reflects his own views.