Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Dennis Prager has a column at the Worldnutdaily complaining of the dangers of historical revisionism by the ACLU and anti-smoking zealots. The connection between the two? You got me. I’m a strong advocate of the ACLU on most things and a strong opponent of America’s anti-smoking paranoia. But along the way, Prager engages in a bit of historical revisionism himself. He writes:

One of the ACLU’s greatest victories was getting the Board of Supervisors in a 3-2 vote (the three were the three leftist supervisors) to remove the tiny cross from the seal of Los Angeles County. Of course, this was done in the name of separation of church and state; no one falsifies history without some higher motive. But falsifying Los Angeles County’s history was the issue. The cross was on the seal because Los Angeles was founded by Catholics. That is why it is named “Los Angeles,” “the angels.” (Once the ACLU successfully removes all crosses from cities and counties, will it move on to changing religious names such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and St. Louis, not to mention Corpus Christi?)

Now, his criticism of the SoCal chapter of the ACLU for that case is, in my view, entirely legitimate. It was a profoundly silly case to pursue and they should never have brought it up in the first place. The fact is that most cities in California were founded as missions; that’s why so many of them start with “San”, which stands for “Saint”. A tiny cross on the seal of a city that was founded as a Catholic mission is hardly an establishment clause problem.

But Prager is engaging in dramatic exaggeration when he calls this “one of the ACLU’s greatest victories”. It is nothing of the sort. The case never even went to trial. They complained to the supervisors, the supervisors voted to make the change and that was that. There was no big battle from which to claim a “greatest victory”, nor did it actually do anything of any substance. The ACLU has won many legal battles, most of them valuable and some of them highly notable. To point to this one minor dustup that never even went to court as a great victory is to give new meaning to the word hyperbole.

And the fact is that those freaking out over that situation and calling it “totalitarian”, as Prager does, are being just as ridiculous as the SoCal ACLU was when they complained about the cross. Surely if it’s reasonable to say that the ACLU overreacted to a tiny cross that expresses an historical fact on a city seal, it’s also reasonable to say that those who claim that taking that tiny cross off the seal is a harbinger of fascism are being equally absurd. If the cross is there, who on earth should care? And if it’s taken off, the same question applies. Nothing changes for anyone, regardless of whether that cross is on the damn seal. And Prager is as guilty as the ACLU for elevating the minutely symbolic over the substantive and making a mountain out of a molehill.


  1. #1 Corkscrew
    May 2, 2006

    It’s also not revisionism by any definition that I’ve come across. Unless they were trying to get the seal changed in all the history books as well, anyway.

  2. #2 Reed A. Cartwright
    May 2, 2006

    Actually, its real name is El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora Reina de los Ángeles sobre El Rio Porciuncula, “The Town of Our Lady Queen of the Angels on the Porciuncula River”.

  3. #3 Ebonmuse
    May 2, 2006

    The religious right’s paranoia about the ACLU suing to rename Los Angeles is just silly. On the other hand, if someone founded a town named something like “Repent-and-believe-in-the-Lord-Jesus-Christ-or-else-burn-in-the-eternal-fires-of-Hell, Mississippi,” for example, there might be a legitimate constitutional complaint.

  4. #4 Zeno
    May 2, 2006

    Look out, Ebonmuse, you’re going to hear from the Chamber of Commerce of Repent-and-believe-in-the-Lord-Jesus-Christ-or-else-burn-in-the-eternal-fires-of-Hell, Mississippi. Or at least their Office of Tourism.

  5. #5 Todd Sayre
    May 3, 2006

    I think Los Angeles, San Francisco and Corpus Christi would have far more to fear from the english as the official national language movement.

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