GELFAND ON CHURCH AND STATE -It seems strange that anyone has to defend the separation of church and state in twenty-first century America, but apparently the Los Angeles County Supervisors didn't get the memo. In the multicultural, multiethnic, multi-religious, and considerably non-religious Los Angeles of 2014, the Sup's voted to put a cross on the county seal. At least they avoided the hammer and sickle, the crescent, the star, or even the flying spaghetti monster. They said it was for the sake of historical accuracy. Right.
Back in the long ago 2000s, LA County had a different official seal. The local ACLU threatened to sue if the county didn't change it, because at that time, it included a cross flying over the Hollywood Bowl. Back then, I thought the ACLU was technically correct, but perhaps ill advised to make an issue over something that seemed kind of inconsequential. I wrote a column in another forum suggesting that since nobody really noticed the cross on the seal anyway, it was more of a fight than we really needed. It was the kind of symbolic gesturing that gets fools on all sides to posturing dramatically. One local radio jock basically suggested that this was the beginning of the end of civilization if the Sup's gave in.
Back then, the supervisors did go ahead and remove the cross from the seal, using the excuse that it was to avoid litigation. Perhaps they really meant it. They did, however, put a drawing of the San Gabriel Mission on the newly redesigned seal. They left the cross off the mission drawing, having at least the excuse that earthquake damage had rendered it devoid of the cross, a symbol which had at one time graced its roof.
Come 2014, and the current sup's have concocted an excuse to put a cross back into the county seal. The San Gabriel Mission has been repaired and now has the cross back. Ahh . . . let's restore the seal to current historical accuracy, they say, and return a cross atop the San Gabriel Mission drawing on the county seal.
Anybody who wants to believe that transparent fabrication, I've got a bridge to sell you and beach property for development in Arizona. Fill in your own joke. You know it's a preposterous argument and a transparent excuse to put religion back into the public square, or in this case, the public circle.
The vote was 3-2. It's not surprising that Don Knabe and Michael Antonovich voted yes. They've been conservative when they were not downright reactionary their whole careers. Where did the third required vote come? Mark Ridley-Thomas. Seems surprising, that third vote.
I could drum up a pretty good argument here that these 3 Sup's were subverting the public will because LA County is one of the most polyglot, poly-religious, and downright non-religious places on the face of the earth. I could quote statistics about the Buddhists, the Hindus, or the half-million Jews who reside in this county, a pretty substantial fraction considering that the total population is under 10 million. I could also point out that the fastest growing segment of our population both here and nationally are the "nones," which is to say, the people who, when asked, answer that they have no religion in particular. In other words, I could point out that favoring one religion is bad democracy.
But I don't want to. That's too much of an argument of opportunism. It's not just that this action sneers at the Sikhs who run our corner store, or insults my Buddhist friends. It's that it offends our whole system of Constitutional liberty. I would rather defend the argument of religious separation that goes back to the founding fathers and is best personified by Thomas Jefferson. I would rather point out that when public schools held public prayers in which 29 out of 30 kids in the classroom belonged to the local Protestant church, it was still wrong. The rights of the one non-believer trump the power of the majority to impose religious practices on any minority. That's our system, and it's sad that we are still being forced to defend it.
There is one argument of opportunism that I'm willing to mention, which is that the United States is among the most Christian and certainly the most religious of western countries because of, not in spite of, our policy of separating the state and the church. Countries with the strongest tradition of official religions and religiosity are now amongst the least religious, with France leading the pack. America, with its system which allows religious organizations to compete amongst each other, has a high level of religious observation compared to other western industrialized countries.
It's also fair to point out that this vote by the Supervisors, as limited and as silly as it is, actually does the opposite of its stated intent. It does not really promote Christianity. Putting that little cross back on the county seal won't cause more Angelenos to attend prayer services or believe in Santa Claus. But what it does do is to remind the non-Christian minorities that they don't count as much, or as strongly, as the professed members of the religious majority. It basically serves to explain to that minority that they don't have the same rights as the actively Christian. Specifically, they lack the right to prevent a definitively Christian symbol from being imposed upon the public view via official government insignias that will be painted onto the sides of patrol cars and printed on public documents.
They are being told, at least at this symbolic level, that they are strangers in their own land.
We've spent the past half century trying to develop a national consensus that discrimination on the basis of race is wrong. It's too bad that even now, some of our elected officials don't accept the fact that discrimination on the basis of religion is also wrong.
(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for City Watch. He can be reached at [email protected])
Vol 12 Issue 7
Pub: Jan 24, 2014