By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A federal judge has ruled that Los Angeles County violated the U.S. and state constitutions by placing a tiny cross atop a depiction of a California mission on its official seal, despite claims by local leaders that it was done for historical accuracy.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Christina Snyder comes in response to a lawsuit filed by civil liberties activists and others who objected to the inclusion of a religious symbol on a government emblem and marks the latest twist in a six-decade saga that has seen the county seal redesigned three times.
"A reasonable, objective observer aware of this contentious history would likely view the county's recent decision to reintroduce a cross at substantial expense as motivated by a sectarian purpose, despite the county's appeal to considerations of artistic and historical accuracy," Snyder wrote in her 55-page written opinion, which followed a one-day trial last November.
The judge granted a permanent injunction against the county's use of the seal, presumably requiring another make over unless her order is overturned on appeal.
A spokesman for Los Angeles County, David Sommers, declined to comment on the ruling, saying attorneys were still reviewing it. He said a decision on whether or not to appeal would be made by the county's board of supervisors.
The dispute dates to 1957, when supervisors approved a new official seal that featured illustrations of the Roman goddess Pomona, a tuna, the Spanish galleon San Salvador, a champion cow named Pearlette, engineering tools, oil derricks and the famed Hollywood Bowl. Above that amphitheatre were shown two stars and a Latin cross.
In 2004, the supervisors, faced with a threatened lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union and following a series of contentious public hearings, voted to recast the seal, removing the cross and replacing Pomona with a Native American woman. The oil rigs were removed in favor of sketch of the San Gabriel Mission.
In 2014, five years after a Latin cross was added to the eastern facade of the actual mission, supervisors voted to put one on the seal as well, following a motion by two board members who said the rendering was otherwise "aesthetically and architecturally inaccurate."
In issuing her opinion, the judge appeared skeptical that accuracy was behind the move, saying that the county made no effort to enforce such artistic rigor with regard to the San Salvador, Hollywood Bowl or prize-winning cow.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Alistair Bell)