LOS ANGELES (CN) - A federal judge will decide whether a Latin cross on the Los Angeles County seal is a state endorsement of Christianity or just an accurate depiction of a building of historical significance.
U.S. District Judge Christina Snyder will grapple with that question after hearing final arguments Thursday in a case brought by religious leaders against county officials.
Five members of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 In January 2014 to include an image of the San Gabriel Mission, with a cross, on the county seal.
That touched off a legal battle with religious leaders of several faiths, who said that inclusion of the cross endorsed Christianity over other religions. During final arguments, the leaders asked Snyder to find that the Board of Supervisors violated their right to religious freedom under the Establishment Clause by endorsing a religion.
In 1957 the county adopted an official seal depicting a cross floating over the Hollywood Bowl. Decades later, the American Civil Liberties Union threatened legal action and the county redesigned the seal and took out religious symbols.
Republican County Supervisors Michael Antonovich and Don Knabe, who dissented at the time, proposed the motion to restore a cross, with Democratic Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas joining them to pass the motion.
On Thursday, the county's attorney Timothy Coates, with Greines, Martin, Stein & Richland, asked Judge Snyder to dismiss the case. Coates said the San Gabriel Mission is historically important, recognizable to Californians, and that officials merely wanted to depict it accurately.
Coates said in a trial brief that the cross had been at the San Gabriel Mission since it was built in the late 1700s. Aside from a 22-year period when the cross was removed for repairs after the Whittier earthquake in 1987, stolen and then restored, the cross has been a consistent feature of the mission.
"The central place of the mission system in general, and the San Gabriel Mission in particular, is underscored by its presence as a core feature of the history curriculum taught to all public students in California," Coates wrote in the trial brief.
But plaintiffs' attorney Linda Burrow, with Caldwell Leslie & Proctor, told Snyder in court that there is no doubt that county officials are endorsing Christianity and that inclusion of the cross had the effect of "advancing religion."
"This is not about the teaching of the missions in the schools," Burrow told Snyder.
The judge asked if the depiction of the mission itself is a religious symbol.
Burrow said that missions have a nonsecular historic significance that Latin crosses do not.
Snyder took the case under submission but did not indicate when she would rule.
"I don't think this is a clear issue one way or the other," Snyder told the attorneys.
The case is Davies v. County of Los Angeles.
County spokesman David Sommers said the county has no comment pending the court's ruling.
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