A Tale Of Two Seals


Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Ordinary Times. Relapsed Lawyer, admitted to practice law (under his real name) in California and Oregon. On Twitter, to his frequent regret, at @burtlikko. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

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57 Responses

  1. Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

    Fascinating post. The 1887 seal is by far the best of the lot. Slap that on the door of a sheriff’s car and you can actually see what it is. All the later ones are far too busy, with tiny fiddly bits scattered about. And really, any piece of graphic design that requires an interpretive pamphlet has failed as graphic design.Report

    • Avatar Autolukos says:

      Yes, but the sensible restraint only brings home how inappropriate it is as a representation of LA County.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      Oranges might be more appropriate than grapes for Los Angeles County. Maybe a surf board, a movie camera, and freeway to.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        Sure, but in 1887?

        I know a lot of local history but not in enough detail to know whether there were more vineyards than orange groves at the time. I do know that there were lots of both. Today, there are more acres of grapes planted in L.A. County than there are acres of oranges.Report

        • Avatar LeeEsq says:

          Maybe not in 1887 but a lot of Midwestern farmers were brought to the Los Angeles area to grow oranges for 19th and early 20th century agribusiness.Report

  2. Avatar Damon says:

    Gotta ask who has the time to go bitch about a seal much less litigate it.

    Damn busy bodies.Report

  3. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    How about a coke-encrusted Hollywood executive? Who doesn’t like that?

    It seems to me that the 1950s seal was a reflection of a different Los Angeles. It came from a more conservative time and when LA was dominated by the Folks as Kevin Starr called them. These were the Protestant and deeply conservative Mid-Westerners who migrated to L.A. That L.A. is largely gone or has migrated to Riverside.Report

  4. Avatar Kolohe says:

    The fish should be named Charlie, and, being in LA, he should be surfing.Report

  5. Avatar Chris says:

    Very interesting. Thank you.Report

  6. Avatar Road Scholar says:

    Very interesting. I’m reminded of the lawsuit in the 70’s challenging “In God We Trust” on our money. My understanding is that SCOTUS rejected the suit on the grounds that the phrase was sufficiently generic that it didn’t effectively promote a particular religion. The irony of course being that recognition of Christianity as a sorta official religion was precisely the entire point of wanting it on our money to begin with.

    So when these sorts of things actually have the intended effect they’re unconstitutional. If they pass constitutional muster it’s only because they fail they’re intended purpose.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      I’ve always been struck by this seeming contradiction, which has an additional wrinkle: it’s the advocates of weak or limited application of the Establishment Clause who are quickest to invoke this concept of “ceremonial Deism,” the idea that engraving “In God We Trust” on money or inserting “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance is somehow not inherently religious but only very broadly and vaguely symbolic of a shared sense of solemnity and good morality, so broad and non-specific that even the irreligious meaningfully participate in that interpretation of invoking the divine.

      But notice that you don’t see many atheists, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Ba’haists, etc. pointing to a Latin cross on some sort of public artwork and saying, “Eh, that’s just sort of a nice symbol reminding us all to be solemn and moral and stuff.” It’s pretty much only Christians who say that. Not all of them: Christians are, like everyone else, rarely unanimous on pretty much any subject. So then you look at the kind of Christians who jump up and say, “No, that’s just ceremonial, it’s a generic symbol that only happens to coincide with our religious symbol.” You’re left with the impression that these are the sort who make strong and loud public proclamations of faith (as is their right, I hasten to add), the ones who are quickest to call the faithful to rally around this precise symbol wherever and in whatever context it appears.

      So coming from this sort of Christian, claims of ceremonial Deism ring off-key. Once again I find myself having admiration in disagreement with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who had the honesty and intellectual integrity to reject the notion of ceremonial deism, and instead argue that the Establishment Clause doesn’t prohibit governmental aid to or preference for Christianity, only to prevent the creation of an American cognate of the Church of England. He was wrong about that, but he didn’t try to hide either his legal position or his personal faith behind the translucent fiction that the cross is sometimes somehow not a meaningful expression of the Christian faith.Report

  7. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    If the depiction of the mission with the cross is meant to symbolize the founding of Los Angeles by the Spanish than I really do not think it should be seen as the violating of the Establishment Clause. The mission represents the nucleus that grew into Los Angeles County rather than an endorsement of the Roman Catholic Church. Religion played an important part in the founding of settlements and states through out the United States. You had the Puritans in New England, Catholics in Maryland, the Spanish Missions in California, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, and during the 19th century the Mormons in Utah. Using what could be in other contexts religious symbolism to depict the founding of a particular place should be fine.

    Many cities, counties, and places in the United States are also derived from Roman Catholic Saints or places in the Bible. Should San Francisco, San Diego, St. Louis, St. Paul, Bethesda, Bethlehem, and many other places have to change their names because of their religious connections? Los Angeles means the Angels in English and has a religious origin. If you take the establishment clause to its natural limits than the answer should be yes. The same with any church street in any village, town, or city.Report

  8. Avatar aaron david says:

    Facinating post @burt-likko, very nice. Especially as it caused me to look up the seal of my hometown, anorther misson town. Here it is. Interesting that it has a bell to represent the misson, which is inferable I guess, but not as obvious as a drawing of the facade. It also has a representation of a friar, along with a native (Chumash), a conquistadore and some dude with a beard and hat (no idea there, but dogs hate him.) And as this is from 1973, having representation of religion as history and place is obviously no impediment to sealing in the modern world.


    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      I don’t see any Establishment of nor aid to religion there, either. Not in the inclusion of the friar nor the representation of the mission by its bell. None of this even remotely suggests to me that I ought to be a Christian, or more specifically a Catholic. The symbol viewed as a whole is richly invested as an expression of history rather than as any sort of endorsement.

      Following @richard-hershberger’s cue about good graphic design, I will critique the seal as being more than a trifle busy.

      With that said, it calls out some significant features of San Luis Obispo County: its tremendous natural beauty, many substantial nods to its pre-United States history, and the great and enduring importance of ranching and agriculture to the local economy. So in that sense I quite like it.

      For what it’s worth.Report

      • Avatar Alan Scott says:

        Nah, needs more booze and tech to properly represent SLO county.

        I just looked at the city seal, too. Interestingly, it depicts the mission, inlcuding it’s cross–but actually just shows empty windows where the bells ought to be. I guess the county seal called dibs.Report

    • Avatar Francis says:

      but dogs hate him.

      wha? Don’t follow.Report

  9. Avatar Kazzy says:

    So why is the inclusion of a Roman goddess okay but not the inclusion of a cross? Is a religion no longer a religion when no one believes in it anymore?Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

      Pretty much. Once nobody believes it, it’s just mythology.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Less visibly identifiable, and more “in keeping” with the rest of the design.
      Remember, a lot of it is the “establishment” of religion.
      (therefore why the native-american looking person is fine… representing history and not “we believe in this religion only”)

      Religion is fine, but only if you let in all religions. If not, you’d better have a different reason for the cross, and be prepared to justify why.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      I don’t think it’s accurate to say no one participates in pagan faiths in Los Angeles County.

      Most of these “pagan” communities seem to be Druidic or Wiccan in focus, but not all of them. The descriptor “pagan” casts a broader net than we’re looking at here. But in my experience, these folks are as sincere in their professions of faith, and as well morally-oriented, as any Christian or Muslim or Hindu I’ve met. I’ve come across two lawyers who self-identified as pagans (one a colleague at a former law firm and the other as an adversary, and both of whom seemed to need to feel me out for being at least minimally tolerant and non-judgmental before they revealed this about themselves), and I dated a Wiccan for a period of time many years ago before I met the woman to whom I am now married.

      Whether anyone presently worships Minerva or Pomona or other spiritual entities from the Greco-Roman pantheon with sincerity, I can’t and wouldn’t say off the top of my head. But were people to step forward and claim to do so, I’d take them at their word.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain says:

        Relatedly, a federal district judge in Nebraska held this week that worship of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is an act of satire, and is not protected as a religion by the Constitution. The pagans better watch out.Report

        • Avatar Burt Likko says:

          “…[T]here comes a point where this Court should not be ignorant as judges of what we know as men.” Watts v. Indiana (1949) 338 U.S. 49, 54, citing Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Company (1922) 259 U.S. 20, 37.

          N.b., if Pastafarianism is satire rather than religion, it is still protected by the Free Speech Clause.Report

          • Avatar Michael Cain says:

            Free speech, yes. In this particular case, inmates in the state prison system were asking for some sort of religious accommodation. The judge didn’t let it go to trial and rule that the state didn’t have to make that particular accommodation; he said that it wasn’t a religion for First Amendment purposes and dismissed the case.

            If the judge’s decision stands, does it imply that it’s not possible to establish a new religion, with new god(s) today? Zeus, Odin, and druid tree spirits (with no disrespect to the worshipers of any of those) are grandfathered in, but would be disallowed if someone started the mythology today?Report

            • Avatar Burt Likko says:

              Well, maybe. Do you have a citation or a link? This would be the first I’ve ever heard of a Court not taking at face value a litigant’s claim of a sincere religious belief. I’d like to see how the judge got there.Report

              • Avatar Michael Cain says:

                Here’s a link to the 16-page decision. I put it up in my own space because at the District Court level, these things seem to disappear unexpectedly.Report

              • Avatar Burt Likko says:

                Page 10 of the slip opinion:

                …[A]side from identifying the FSM Gospel, Cavanaugh has not alleged anything about what it is that he actually believes — leaving the Court to read the book. And it is no more tenable to read the FSM Gospel as proselytizing for supernatural spaghetti than to read Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal” as advocating cannibalism. …
                This is not a question of theology: it is a matter of basic reading comprehension. The FSM Gospel is plainly a work of satire, meant to entertain while making a pointed political statement. To read it as a religious doctrine would be little different from grounding a “religious exercise on any other work of fiction. A prionser could just as easily read the works of Vonnegut or Heinlein and claim it as his holy book, and demand accommodation of Bokononism or the Church of All Worlds … Of course, there are those who contend — and Cavanaugh is probably among them — that the Bible or the Koran are just as fictional as those books. It is not always an easy line to draw. But there must be a line beyond which a practice is not “religious” simply because a plaintiff labels it as such. The Court concludes that FSMism is on the far side of that line.

                There’s a bit more law to it than that, but it’s really an application of that Supreme Court quote I had above: we need not, as jurists, ignore things that are plainly obvious to us as human beings. “FSMism” is a political argument in the form of a parody, not a bona fide religion.

                I can readily conceive of wanting to rely on this opinion later in some other context, so I hope you’ll leave it up and accessible for future reference.Report

              • Avatar nevermoor says:

                Sure, but what about scientology…Report

              • Avatar nevermoor says:

                That’s a pretty strong decision, at least on its face.Report

          • Avatar Francis says:

            and do the 8 justices of the Supreme Court take at face value the claimed burden borne by the Little Sisters of picking up a pen and signing a form?Report

              • Avatar Francis says:

                Oh, I know. That was entirely rhetorical.

                The interesting question, I think, is presented by a group of OB/GYNs incorporating as the Sisters of Medical Mercy. They trot off to federal district court in Texas and claim the following:

                a) They were raised Christian and still practice their Christian faith on a regular basis;
                b) They sincerely believe that their faith requires them to lead lives of medical mercy;
                c) They have chosen to express their faith by opening abortion clinics in poor communities in Texas;
                d) The Texas TRAP laws sincerely burden their religious freedom and are not the least intrusive means of achieving the legislative goals.

                I’ve read that a group of people calling themselves Satanists are trying that approach. Why make life for the judge so easy? Claim you’re a good Christian.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                The problem with application of a little nihilism is that it’s very, very hard to put the stopper back on the tube.Report

              • Avatar pillsy says:

                I’m under the impression that the Federal RFRA wouldn’t apply to Texas’ TRAP laws.

                However, I do wonder if they could make a substantially similar argument against the Hyde Amendment. My understanding is that one of the reasons the majority found in favor of Hobby Lobby was that it was a significant burden to not let the corporation take advantage of the tax benefits of providing its employees with health insurance.Report

              • Avatar Francis says:

                oops. quite right. But Texas does have a RFRA of its own.Report

      • Avatar pillsy says:

        I had an acquaintance in high school who identified as Greek Orthodox.

        She would make burnt offerings[1] to Zeus.

        [1] Rice cakes.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      In the absence of a Deity, a graven image (of any sort) is nothing more than a proxy for a particular culture.

      Some affirmations of a particular culture are okay. A Roman goddess, for example, is obviously a manifestation of a particular idea when shown as part of a compilation of enlightenment kinda images.

      See also, the friezes on the Supreme Court building.

      But when the symbol is a sub-culture asserting itself, it crosses the line.
      The question then comes to what extent is a post-enlightenment that forbids such symbols an example of post-protestant iconoclasm and to what extent that should inform our insistence that one sub-culture not bigfoot another.Report

  10. Avatar pillsy says:

    Would the issue have shaken out any differently if they had included the cross on top of the mission from the very first? It would seem much easier to argue they were just including it to more accurately represent a historically significant building without any endorsement of religion.

    The details of the California constitutional injunction aside, I’d think that would be enough to justify the inclusion of the cross in the 2014 seal regardless.Report

    • Avatar nevermoor says:

      In my opinion, very much yes (though, apparently the cross wasn’t actually there then, which would have complicated things).Report

  11. Avatar nevermoor says:

    My first take is that, despite the deep thought you put in, this is a pretty easy case precisely because of the historical facts.

    I was actually surprised reading it that there was no cross anywhere in the 2004 version, which would have made for an interesting case. But this is literally asking for the county to spend some money purely to add crosses to its seal. I have a hard time seeing this go anywhere on appeal since the facts are so bad for the pro-cross side.

    If I were in their shoes, I’d either wait for a better case to spend my litigation bux on, or go back and try to change the seal in multiple ways to make it “more accurate” (add the cross to the building, as it is in real life, maybe change the fish to a real fish, change the masonic thing to something less masonic, even see if I could make a case for changing the central female image in the name of historical accuracy. Then, if that loses, I’ve got a much more compelling case to go to war on.

    I have a hard time seeing the Ninth Circuit reversing here. And even if they did refer the CA constitutional questions to the CA supreme court, which seems unlikely given the straightforward analysis in light of Paulson and the traditional federal Lemmon analysis, the outcome would be no different. I’d peg the odds of the Supreme Court accepting cert on this one at 0%, barring a Trump presidency and a hard-core religious new justice. Even then, it’d need Roberts or Kennedy’s vote to get granted.Report

  12. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    “There is no such thing as a war on Christianity. Now get your cross out of here, you Christianist asshole. And don’t go getting too comfortable, I’m not gonna stop until every single one of your symbols is eradicated from public view!”Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:

      So there wasn’t a cross. Then a cross was added. Then a cross was taken away. Then a cross was added. *** Then a cross was taken away.

      You want to start at the *** and pretend nothing before it happened.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck says:

        “See, you’re totally getting this wrong. We’re not against Christianity, we’re just against acknowledgement of Christianity.”

        PS I look forward to your campaign against any government office having the word “San” in its title, seeing as how it refers explicitly and unequivocally to Christian religious figures. “Sir, we are filing a lawsuit against you for supporting religion.” “But…but the name of the city is San Francisco!!” “Yes, we’re working on that.”Report

        • Avatar El Muneco says:

          I’d think you’d be in favor – after all “San” means “Saint”, and saints are Catholic, and that’s popery – they aren’t Real True Christians, after all.Report

          • Avatar DensityDuck says:

            Not sure where you’re getting that from.Report

            • Avatar El Muneco says:

              Just noting that your pals in the “they terk er CROSS” lobby – e.g. pastors railing about suppression of religious expression and imminent repression, unironically, from a perfectly safe pulpit and broadcast over a series of tubes via social media – are perfectly happy to count anyone remotely Christian (up to and including Arians, who can’t take the Nicene Creed for multiple reasons, one of which being that they’ve all been dead for centuries) as part of the majority when it comes time to put their thumbs on the scale.

              Then turn around as soon as context shifts and fracture along multiple schism lines so quickly that would blow all the dandruff off a True Scotsman’s shoes.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck says:

                “your pals in the “they terk er CROSS” lobby ”

                Never did claim to be part of that lobby, bro.

                It is possible to identify the hypocrisy of a movement without being part of the countermovement, or one of the movement’s targets.

                I can see how people of a less-intellectual bent might have trouble with that kind of thought, though.Report

    • Avatar pillsy says:

      Surely no one who wants to publicly display a cross could possibly have their own property to place it on.Report

  13. Avatar Slade the Leveller says:

    Yep,every other problem that L.A. County has has now been solved, so let’s take up the issue of the cross, or lack thereof, on the county seal.

    A phrase that a Reddit commenter used in a discussion about Indiana’s new abortion law has come to mind more and more lately: “this is the Christian version of sharia.”Report