At first blush it seemed an odd thing for an observant Jew to do: Slogging my way through morning rush-hour traffic to get downtown to demonstrate against the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors’ decision to remove a small cross from the county seal.
And yet, I felt compelled to be there. The supervisors had already capitulated, in a 3-2 vote, to a threat by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to sue the county over the cross. Surprised by the public outcry, the supervisors called for another vote to consider a so-called “compromise” with the ACLU in which the cross on the seal — just one of a dozen various symbols of the region’s history — would be replaced by a mission. But as one clever observer noted, a mission without a cross just looks like a Taco Bell.
For years the actions of the ACLU have infuriated me. Their reflexively leftist positions have accomplished the exact opposite of what their name suggests: Instead of promoting civil liberties, they have hampered them at every opportunity, particularly by trying to eradicate symbols of Judaism and Christianity from public life and, by extension, have stifled free expression. Their successful bullying tactics have so cowed public officials that they simply fold when the ACLU comes complaining. In fact, the ACLU first targeted the city of Redlands, whose city seal also has a cross, and now bureaucrats there are busily taking black marker to the crosses until they can redesign the seal. Things must be pretty slow at the ACLU if this is all they can come up with as a threat to our national civil liberties.
By the way, the Los Angeles County seal also includes the pagan goddess Pomona, goddess of gardens and fruit trees, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem for the ACLU. Their animus is toward Christianity and Judaism, and it is as limitless as it is hypocritical. While they are now busily checking for crosses on county seals (and the cross on the Los Angeles County seal is so small they probably needed a magnifying glass to see it), they are only selectively bothered by Christian symbols. In 1995 they represented — are you ready? — the Ku Klux Klan, who were denied the right to erect a 6-foot cross in front of the Ohio Capitol State building. This bastion of “free speech” and civil liberties took up the Klansmens’ case (Capitol Square Review Board vs. Pinette), rejecting Ohio’s argument that allowing the display violated the separation of church and state. According to the ACLU, a tiny cross on a county seal representing part of the county’s history is intolerable, but an enormous cross put up by virulently racist Klansmen in front of a state capitol building is an expression of free speech. Got it?
Many of the demonstrators, led by radio talk show host Dennis Prager, argued that by eliminating the cross from the seal, the supervisors were rewriting history — a hallmark of totalitarian regimes. Like it or not, Los Angeles was founded by the Rev. Junipero Serra as a mission, making Christianity a central element in the county’s early history. For a group claiming to stand for free speech and civil liberties, eviscerating the truth of our history is unconscionable.
Most people understand the danger inherent in rewriting history. That’s why the 1,000-plus demonstrators at the Hall of Supervisors were multiracial, multiethnic and religiously diverse. (Of course, one would not know that from the coverage in the Los Angeles Times, which chose to include a photo making the gathered crowd look like a good ol’ boy come-to-Jesus meeting. The photo was so misleading and out of context that the Times ran a correction the following day.) I was pleased to find some of my religious friends among the crowd, including David Altschuler, who took his 10th-grade daughter out of school for the occasion. Like me, David came to show non-Jews that “many Jews appreciate the freedom that Christians in this country have granted to us.” Many people who noticed his kippah came up and thanked him for coming.
I probably would not have come to value the importance of this issue had I not studied with Rabbi Daniel Lapin, founder and president of Toward Tradition and formerly the rabbi of the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice. For nearly 20 years, he has been a lone voice in the wilderness, arguing that it is the uniquely tolerant brand of Christianity practiced here that has given Jews the kind of freedom unprecedented anywhere in the Diaspora. On Jewish participation in the fight to save the cross on the seal, Lapin said, “Seldom have Jews appealed to the Christian community in vain when we needed help with issues important to us, such as supporting Soviet Jewish immigration or fighting domestic anti-Semitism. This is a chance for the organized Jewish community to return the favor.”
If anyone would have told me in my early adulthood that I’d become a defender of the cross, so to speak, I would have been as incredulous as if they’d also predicted I’d one day vote Republican. But people change. Sometimes, people become open to new ideas, even previously foreign ideas. The cross on the county seal is small, but the fight to preserve it is very, very big. I demonstrated not only to preserve the truth of our history, but also because I’ve had enough of the tyranny of the ACLU. This time, they’re after crosses. Can anybody doubt that next time it will be a Star of David?
Judy Gruen is an award-winning humorist and columnist for Religion News
Service. More of her columns can be found at www.judygruen.com.