Junipero Serra is the Roman Catholic priest — now a saint — who has been the subject of controversy over his legacy. As a Guardian article put it:
Under Serra’s leadership, tens of thousands of Native Americans across Alta California, as the region was then known, were absorbed into Catholic missions — places said by one particularly rapturous myth-maker in the 19th century to be filled with “song, laughter, good food, beautiful languor, and mystical adoration of the Christ”.
What this rosy-eyed view omits is that these natives were brutalized — beaten, pressed into forced labour and infected with diseases to which they had no resistance — and the attempt to integrate them into the empire was a miserable failure. The journalist and historian Carey McWilliams wrote almost 70 years ago the missions could be better conceived as “a series of picturesque charnel houses”.
That’s why it’s beyond disturbing that the seal for Ventura County, California includes a giant picture of the Catholic brutalizer.
Last month, the county’s Board of Supervisors announced that they would consider a redesign of the seal because of that controversy… but it’s not a done deal yet. They’re seeking public input first.
To that end, Atheists United — which is based in California — is urging them to make the change and drop Serra from the new seal.
“The non-christian and indigenous communities of Ventura County demand better than a bigot as the symbol of their county,” said Evan Clark, Executive Director of Atheists United. “We demand the Board of Supervisors immediately remove this unconstitutional and hateful symbol of white, religious supremacy.”
There’s a petition you can sign if you feel the same way. Atheists United also has email addresses for the supervisors on their site so people can send along personal pleas, too.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has sent a similar message, adding that the presence of Serra on the seal is a legal issue as well as an ethical one:
The inclusion of a religious figure on the official Ventura County seal violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment…
Regardless of the unconstitutionality of the seal, as a matter of policy, the County should remove exclusionary religious images from its official representations. Changing the seal would show the citizens of Ventura County that their County and its leadership do not favor any one religion or belief system.
There’s no reason to include a religious figure on a county seal. There’s definitely no reason to include someone directly responsible for the death and suffering of countless people.
This is a simple decision. Let’s hope the Board makes the change.