If the American Civil Liberties Union committed itself to advancing the rights of Christians and Jews as tirelessly as it does to rooting out Christian and Jewish images in the public square, perhaps its civil liberties credo would not seem so duplicitous.
Sadly, the evolution of "civil liberties" has yielded a corresponding erosion of respect for those pesky "traditional values"—and the religions with which they are associated—that threaten the new pioneers of social engineering.
If religious tradition is to be recognized, say the pioneers, it is only the religious tradition of a distant culture that deserves our respect. Thus fealty toward heathenism, the religion of a conquered people, and to the conquered people themselves, is fitting, as is abjuring the Judeo-Christian heritage that formed, dominates and buttresses American society. Evidence of this truism is no more apparent than in Los Angeles, where three recent lawsuits highlight a preference for ancient religions and hostility toward the largest faith practiced in America.
In Native American Heritage Commission vs. the Board of Trustees of California State University, Long Beach, a case filed by the ACLU, the development of commercial property owned by a state-funded university has been temporarily thwarted on the theory that the property is deemed sacred by Native Americans.
The ACLU, while not participating, prompted the other lawsuits. In a May 19, 2004, letter to the County of Los Angeles, the ACLU threatened to sue the County unless it removed a tiny Latin cross from its official seal, in use since 1957. The County complied, ostensibly to avoid the threatened lawsuit, and instead invited both federal and state actions by those opposing a redesign.
The federal case (Velasquez vs. County of Los Angeles, et al.) alleged a single cause of action for violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion"). The state action (Horowitz, et al. vs. County of Los Angeles, et al.) challenges the state and federal constitutionality of the county’s decision and alleges a waste of taxpayer funds. David Horowitz, President of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture and Editor-in-Chief of Frontpagemag.com, is the lead plaintiff in this case. Horowitz and nine other plaintiffs are represented by the legal team of John Eastman, Manny Klausner, William J. Becker, Jr. (author of this article) and Don Wagner. Manny Klausner is general counsel of the Individual Rights Foundation, and the IRF -- the legal arm of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture -- is working with the Claremont Institute's Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence on the case.
When three of the five members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors ignored the voices of hundreds of area citizens jamming the county board room to protest the proposed redesign, they proved the subtle ease with which the ACLU is capable of lifting tradition to form a world in its own image. The new seal would substitute one pagan god with another, replacing Pomona, the nymph of fruit linked to fertility in Etruscan lore, with a Native American woman that appears to be a depiction of the goddess Nautsiti, daughter of the sun god and giver of life in a prominent Native American creation myth of the Keresan Pueblo tribe of New Mexico. The reason for the Betty Crocker image-makeover is not readily apparent. Etruscan gods out; Native American gods in?
Nor did the county explain its removal of oil derricks representing the discovery of oil in Signal Hill. After all, in its demand letter to the County, the ACLU never voiced a "concern" regarding Pomona or the oil derricks. It was the cross they were after. One can only imagine the back-room discussion: Since we’re deep-sixing the cross, let’s jettison the anti-environmental, greedy corporate oil thingies and get an Indian in there. Romans aren’t voting in this county. Dubiously, in place of the cross is what purports to be a Spanish mission, sans cross. This image apparently is intended as a compromise. But if it is in fact a mission, then has the County solved the problem? Do not Spanish missions of the Catholic Franciscan Order send a religious message?
Of course, the debate should not be over whether the image sends a religious message but whether it sends an impermissible religious message, one that promotes a religion. The prohibition against governmental endorsement of religion precludes government from conveying or attempting to convey a message that religion or a particular religious belief is favored or preferred. The governmental act must (1) have a secular purpose; (2) have a primary effect of neither advancing nor prohibiting religion; and (3) not foster excessive government entanglement with religion.
Native American religions seem to escape this type of scrutiny. Opponents of Cal State’s development project explain that the entire Long Beach campus and much of the neighboring area sits on top of "the historically and archaeologically known village sites of Puvungna, sacred to Southern California Indians since it was a creation center and the place where the prophet Chinigchinich lived and taught." They claim that "this last remaining strip of Puvungna is still used by many Native Americans as a place of worship." Because Puvungna is "sacred", they argue that their right to "freely exercise their beliefs" is unconstitutionally disturbed by "the state stepping in to pave over their place of worship and put a mini-mall on it."
No one, in fact, knows whether paving over the "last remaining strip of Puvunga" will actually prevent followers of Chinigchinich from practicing their faith, since it is not known how many Chinigchinich followers, if any, currently practice this ancient faith, while Christians in Los Angeles County number in the millions. The lawsuit, however, has already succeeded in halting construction.
The totemic cross, along with Pomona and the oil derricks, has been a fixture on the county seal of Los Angeles for a generation. The cross itself shares one of seven windows within the circular emblem above a scallop image resembling the Hollywood Bowl and to the left of two stars. In 47 years, no one except the ACLU has complained.
The ACLU’s nervy demand neglected to acknowledge the 47-year incident-free history of the presence of the cross on the county seal. "As you know," the letter confides, "the official seal . . . prominently depicts a Latin cross, a sectarian religious symbol that represents the beliefs of one segment of the County’s diverse population." Prominently? It was on no one’s radar and barely survives color reproduction in a September 9, 2004, Los Angeles Times news report. Squint and you just might see it, no doubt for the first time.
And just what do the other images represent, if not individual segments of the County’s diverse population? The Hollywood Bowl for the entertainment industry, for instance. A triangle and caliper for the construction and aerospace industries. Curiously, the three supervisors who voted to amputate the seal and excise the tumorous cross did not seem uneasy about possibly preventing Christians from freely exercising their faith.
Is Christianity favored or preferred by an acknowledgement of a region’s history? Do we ignore its vital role in forming a civilized community? Does the presence of a cross on the county seal foster "excessive" entanglement with religion? The answers, it seems, depends on whether the religion is currently practiced by a majority of people or practiced by heathens in the ancient past.
One item has survived the redesign: a Spanish galleon that the conquistador Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed into San Pedro Harbor in 1542. Cabrillo didn’t actually stake a claim to the area for Spain, nor is there any reason to believe he paid much attention to this part of California, stopping off in Point Loma (San Diego) and taking his next rest break in Santa Barbara. For 150 years, lured by the prospect of gold and silver thought to exist in Alta California, and increasingly pressured by exploring Russian, French and British vessels, Spain set out to conquer the region and convert the natives to Christianity. That they succeeded makes today’s pioneers uneasy, ashamed as they are that Christian imperialists laid the foundations for a new society.
Revisionists who lament the marauding ambitions of New Spain would ignore the accretion of societies in the 18th Century, a global phenomenon as vigorously pursued as the march of Alexander. Apologists for global conquest, today’s pioneers of social engineering demand reparations.
But history, viewed through an impenitent prism, demands no reparations. On August 2, 1769, Father Juan Crespi spotted a river, which he named El Rio de Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles de la Porciuncula (River of Our Lady Queen of the Angels of Porciuncula), to commemorate the Jubilee of Our Lady of the Angels of Porciuncula held one day earlier. Porciuncula derived from an Umbrian word—portiuncula—for "very small parcel of land." The Franciscan Order of the Catholic Church, of which he was a member, was founded through the acts of an Italian christened Giovanni di Bernardone. Giovanni’s father, a clothing merchant returning from a business trip to France in 1182 shortly after the child was born, was angered by his wife’s choice of a forename and insisted that Giovanni be referred to as Francesco, meaning "Frenchy." Francis (his Anglicized name), who incidentally originated the Christmas Nativity scene, would later be known as St. Francis of Assisi. It was his church near the Umbrian town of Assisi for which Father Crespi named the Los Angeles River.
The town and parish of Portiuncula sit roughly three-quarters of a mile from Assisi. Officially known as Santa Maria degli Angeli, it grew up around the basilica of Our Lady of the Angels and its adjoining monastery. It is the spot where St. Francis renounced worldly possessions and committed himself to marrying "Lady Poverty" in the service of God and where he died. The tiny chapel on its small parcel of land no longer exists, but its legacy endures.
In 1777, the New Spanish inspector general named the second (after San Jose) civilian settlement in California: de la Reina de Los Angeles sobre el rio de la Porciuncula. The Queen of the Angels on the River of the Small Parcel. Then, in August 1781, the governor issued his proclamation for the founding of El Pueblo Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles.
To those who would repudiate the cross as a symbol of Los Angeles history, I offer a challenge: If you believe that the cross represents an endorsement of religion, that it conveys a message of preference for religion or a religious belief, then to be consistent you must declare the name Los Angeles to be equally offensive to the Constitution. Demand that Los Angeles change its name. It is conclusively of Christian origin and etymology. Do not fall further into the waste of hypocrisy. While you’re at it, demand that 49 other cities up and down the California peninsula, from San Diego to San Francisco to Sacramento, be changed to reflect secularism and pluralism. But don’t stop there. Insist that we also dismiss the Native American culture as well. After all, it represents the beliefs of only one segment of the community.