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Byline: Troy Anderson Staff Writer

No L.A.? It's no joke.

A strong legal argument can be made that the name of the city of Los Angeles - even worse its formal name, ``The Town of Our Lady the Queen of Angels of the Little Portion'' - violates the constitutional requirement for separation of church and state.

Some constitutional law experts say the American Civil Liberties Union's campaign to remove a small cross from the Los Angeles County seal and similar efforts elsewhere in the country help build a foundation for challenges against communities like San Francisco, San Diego or Santa Barbara.

``That's absolutely right,'' said Joerg Knipprath, a professor of constitutional law at the Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles.

``The cross is a minor symbol on the county seal whereas Los Angeles is the 'City of Angels.' San Clemente, Santa Monica, Sacramento, San Francisco, etc., are all religious references.

``It's far-fetched at this point. I don't think it's going to happen in the next 10 years. But if somebody said 10 or 20 years ago that we were going to challenge the Pledge of Allegiance or this tiny little cross on the county seal, the argument would have been that was far-fetched too.''

The First Amendment bans the government from making an ``establishment of religion,'' so Los Angeles' name - a reference to Mary, the mother of Jesus - could be construed as illegal.

On those grounds, a federal appeals court ruled in 2002 that the phrase ``under God'' was impermissible in the Pledge of Allegiance if teachers led schoolchildren in reciting it. That ruling was put on hold until the U.S. Supreme Court hands down a final ruling in the California case, which could come by July.

This month, bowing to the ACLU's Southern California chapter, Los Angeles County supervisors agreed to replace a Christian cross on its 47- year-old official seal with depictions of a mission and indigenous people. The ACLU said it found no fault with the seal of the city of Los Angeles, which is surrounded by a rosary.

Douglas Mirell, an attorney and ACLU board member, said he doesn't have insight into where the next ``battleground'' will be but he ``doesn't see'' anyone challenging the name of California cities or counties.

ACLU boards decide whether to challenge crosses and other religious symbols on public property after someone makes a complaint to them.

``The ACLU has been fairly selective about the religious battles it has taken on over the years,'' Mirell said. ``It's obviously a question that divides people, sometimes bitterly. And except in those cases where the law is clear, the ACLU frequently decides its resources are better spent elsewhere.''

However, some attorneys and activists expect the ACLU or other groups to bring more challenges against cities and counties across the nation unless they remove crosses and other religious symbols on government seals and public property.

``I think the ACLU may very well bring similar cases in future years all over the country,'' said Erwin Chemerinsky, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Southern California.

Since 1999, the ACLU, other groups and individuals have been successful in getting crosses on government seals removed in Los Angeles County, Redlands and La Mesa, Calif.; Zion, Ill.; Stow, Ohio; Bernalillo, N.M.; Rolling Meadows, Ill.; and Edmond, Okla. A federal court allowed Austin, Texas, to keep a cross on its seal after a legal challenge.

During the same period, the groups have successfully argued that crosses on public land must be removed - or forced public entities to give up their ownership of land with crosses - in Ventura, Simi Valley and the Mojave National Preserve, Calif.

Douglas Kmiec, a constitutional law professor at Pepperdine University School of Law, said that if the past is any guide, he expects the ACLU or others to challenge the mention of religion at graduations and the names of cities with religious identification.

``The logic of the ACLU's reasoning would suggest that Santa Monica should be renamed Monica, San Diego should be renamed Diego and on down the line. Los Angeles is a similar reference to angels. The full title of Los Angeles is a distinctly religious name.''

ACLU spokesman Tenoch Flores said the organization only becomes involved in issues when contacted by people who believe there is a problem, and he doesn't expect anyone to challenge the name of Los Angeles or other communities.

``That has got to be one of the most ridiculous things I've ever heard. Nobody is considering suing to change city names. If anybody were to bring such a suit, it would laughed out of court and rightfully so.

``We don't go around looking for things, but we certainly don't back down in the face of criticism if it's determined that a constitutional issue is at stake.''

Bruce Einhorn, chairman of the Anti-Defamation League in Los Angeles, which supported the county supervisors' decision to remove the cross, said the ADL doesn't file lawsuits and doesn't know if there is a good legal argument to challenge the name of Los Angeles.

``It's very hypothetical and distinctively different from very specific symbols of religious faith, whether they be Stars of David, Christian crosses or Islamic crescents,'' Einhorn said. ``We'd have to cross that bridge when it's built. We would rather not stoke fires that haven't been started.''

Jay Seculow, a radio host and chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a Virginia-based public interest law firm founded by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson - which had offered to defend the Los Angeles County seal in court - said the fight over the seal is part of a trend.

``(The goal is to) purge all religious observances and references from American public life. Will (opponents) try to get the name of Los Angeles changed? Sure. Why not, if they can get the cross removed from the seal?''

Troy Anderson, (213) 974-8985

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jun 13, 2004

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