Circumcision Ban to Appear on San Francisco Ballot

Supporters say the practice is genital mutilation, opponents call claims misleading

By Robin Hindery The Associated Press
updated
5/18/2011 7:07:58 PM ET

A proposal to ban the circumcision of male children in San Francisco has been cleared to appear on the November ballot, setting the stage for the nation’s first public vote on what has long been considered a private family matter.

But even in a city with a long-held reputation for pushing boundaries, the measure is drawing heavy fire. Opponents are lining up against it, saying a ban on a religious rite considered sacred by Jews and Muslims is a blatant violation of constitutional rights.

Elections officials confirmed Wednesday the initiative had qualified for the ballot with more than 7,700 valid signatures from city residents. Initiatives must have at least 7,168 names to qualify.

If the measure passes, circumcision would be prohibited among males under the age of 18. The practice would become a misdemeanor offense punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or up to one year in jail. There would be no religious exemptions.

The proposed ban appears to be the first in the country to make it this far, though a larger national debate over the health benefits of circumcision has been going on for many years. Banning circumcision would almost certainly prompt a flurry of legal challenges alleging violations of the First Amendment’s guarantee of the freedom to exercise one’s religious beliefs.

Supporters of the ban say male circumcision is a form of genital mutilation that is unnecessary, extremely painful and even dangerous. They say parents should not be able to force the decision on their young child.

“Parents are really guardians, and guardians have to do what’s in the best interest of the child. It’s his body. It’s his choice,” said Lloyd Schofield, the measure’s lead proponent and a longtime San Francisco resident. He added the cutting away of the foreskin from the penis is a more invasive medical procedure than many new parents or childless individuals realize.

But opponents say such claims are alarmingly misleading, and call the proposal a clear violation of constitutionally protected religious freedoms.

“For a city that’s renowned for being progressive and open-minded, to even have to consider such an intolerant proposition … it sets a dangerous precedent for all cities and states,” said Rabbi Gil Yosef Leeds of Berkeley. Leeds is a certified “mohel,” the person who traditionally performs ritual circumcisions in the Jewish faith.

He said for the past few months he has been receiving daily phone calls from members of the local Jewish community who are concerned about the proposed ban. But he said he is relatively confident that even if the measure is approved, it will be abruptly — and indefinitely — tied up in litigation.

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