Ed Driscoll

Los Atheists Update

One more from Collyvvvvvvornia, as Gov. Schwarzenegger pronounces it. Last June, we looked at the ACLU’s efforts to remove the tiny cross from Los Angeles’ county seal, an effort that L.A.’s city council was only to happy to oblige.

In contrast, The Wall Street Journal notes that James Hahn, the city’s liberal mayor, is using the issue as a bulwark against his opponent in an upcoming mayorial primary–which makes sense: his late father, long time Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn helped design the logo back in 1957:

The mayor recalls his dad describing the old seal as “a bunch of grapes he thought was boring.” By remaking it, the elder Hahn chose to depict two landmarks, the Hollywood Bowl amphitheater and a nearby hillside cross. And to represent the half-rural but growing county, he chose images of oil wells, a fish, a cow and engineers’ calipers, all arranged around an image of Pomona, a pagan goddess.

For decades, the emblem went unremarked upon–a mishmash of Southern California iconography endlessly reproduced on county business cards, stationery and buildings. But the local ACLU was irked by the cross, even if it was too small to be identified on county business cards without a magnifying glass. Last year it fired off a letter to the County Board of Supervisors, saying the cross threatened the separation of church and state. (It had no quarrel with the pagan goddess.)

Huge crowds attended a June hearing at which the five elected members of the Board of Supervisors made their decision. Christians and non-Christians alike argued that the cross was a historical symbol, representing the hillside cross in Hollywood as well as the settlement of the area by Spanish missionaries. Yet the Democratic-dominated board voted to remove it, replacing it with a Spanish mission so sanitized that it looks like a suburban home. The board jettisoned Pomona too, replacing her with a Native American.

Though the legal threat got resolved, the political issue did not. The county board became the butt of jokes. Talk radio had a field day. Opinion polls favored the cross. Now, with Mr. Hahn facing a stiff primary challenge on May 17 from rival City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, the cross beckons again.

Lagging in polls, the liberal-to-moderate mayor must win black voters, who tend toward the religious and who helped elect him in large part due to his father’s legacy. Black voters are angry that Mr. Hahn ousted black Police Chief Bernard Parks amid a morale crisis in Mr. Parks’s department, so they are migrating to Mr. Villaraigosa. To win, Mr. Hahn must also invigorate Republicans and moderate San Fernando Valley voters, neither of whom are natural allies of Mr. Villaraigosa, a former union organizer and past leader of the local ACLU.

On April 18, Mr. Hahn endorsed a countywide petition drive that would let residents vote in 2006 on reinstating the cross. He signed a similar petition after the county board refused to put the question before voters, but that drive fizzled for lack of funds. It has more steam now. “Many conservatives weren’t even going to vote [in the mayoral race],” Republican activist Davis Hernandez says, “but now they are. Here’s the son of the man who designed the seal, running against a former president of the ACLU, that pushed to remove the seal. I keep saying you can’t make this stuff up.”

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Mr. Villaraigosa had no part in removing the cross. But Mr. Hahn enjoys playing up his rival’s former ACLU leadership, and not only because of the cross controversy. While at the ACLU, Mr. Villaraigosa spoke on behalf of the rights of gang members and opposed gang injunctions–a crime-fighting tactic effectively employed by Mr. Hahn during his long stint as city attorney for Los Angeles before he became mayor in 2001.

Whatever the campaign advantages, Mr. Hahn says that he doesn’t like politicians revising history. “Religious freedom is part of our country–you can’t obliterate that,” says Mr. Hahn, noting that the cross and the Hollywood Bowl stand together on the seal as they have in L.A. for decades. “You can’t deny the history of the county.” Besides, he notes, his father “didn’t have a divisive bone in his body, and he’d be amazed that there was any controversy over the county seal.”

Most liberal politicians from the 1950s and ’60s would be surprised at just how far to the left their party traveled after 1972. And as Hahn’s battle indicates, it’s tough to go wrong attacking the ACLU–no matter what your party.