A ballot measure to ban circumcision in San Francisco has become a national punch line, but it's being taken seriously by religious groups who see the proposal as an attack on their faith.
The measure, which won a place on the Nov. 8 city ballot after advocates gathered the necessary 7,143 signatures, would outlaw circumcisions on males younger than 18, except in cases of medical necessity, within city limits. Anyone convicted of performing circumcisions could be sentenced to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
What alarms faith groups is that no religious exemptions would be permitted, even though circumcision is a traditional rite of the Jewish and Muslim faiths. Foes of circumcision, who call themselves "intactivists," say the answer is for boys to wait until they're 18.
"I can guarantee you a person who receives cutting on his genitals as an infant is not getting any religious uplifting from the event," said Lloyd Schofield, the measure's proponent in San Francisco. "When you do it when you're older, you're making a choice and it's meaningful to you. We want to stop this and put choice back in the hands of men."
The Jewish circumcision ritual is traditionally performed on the eighth day of a boy's life. Rather than upend thousands of years of tradition, Jewish groups have joined with legal professionals, doctors and elected officials in opposing the measure through the recently formed Committee for Parental Choice and Religious Freedom.
"We're opposing the ban on the grounds of religious freedom," said Nancy Appel, Anti-Defamation League associate regional director. "San Francisco has a reputation for crazy things happening here, but we are concerned that this may embolden others."
If it does pass, the proposal could face a legal challenge on First Amendment grounds, given that it denies Jews and Muslims their right to free exercise of their religious beliefs, said Joel Paul, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.
Even placing the issue on the ballot violates the Constitution's establishment clause, regardless of the election's outcome, he said.
"No religious group should have to defend its convictions in a general election," Mr. Paul wrote in an email. "Religious minorities should not be forced to persuade the majority that their religious practices should be allowed."
Local press coverage and editorials have been largely negative about the measure.
While decrying the tactics and tone of the anti-circumcision campaign, San Francisco Examiner columnist Ken Garcia wrote recently, "The biggest reason that this push against a commonly accepted practice should be rejected is that its a personal decision, not a political one. Parents can choose to have the procedure done or not, its that simple."
None of this has discouraged Matthew Hess, author of the proposal's language, who thinks the circumcision ban has a decent shot at passage.
"I think the chances are pretty good," Mr. Hess said. "I feel like if a bill like this is going to pass, it's going to be in San Francisco. The heartbeat of the movement is in San Francisco. San Francisco has always been a beacon of progressive thought."
Intactivists equate infant male circumcision to female genital mutilation, which, despite its prevalence in some cultures, has been illegal in the United States since 1996.
What's more, San Francisco is known for its large gay population, and more than a few gay men are opposed to the practice, he said. Mr. Hess recently told the San Francisco Chronicle that he was inspired to take up the issue after seeing a local intactivist group marching in a gay pride parade a few years ago.
"Gay men and natural-birthing groups are our strongest supporters outside the core of intactivists," Mr. Hess said.
That said, gay-rights groups aren't exactly rushing to endorse the measure. None is listed as a supporter of the ballot measure on the group's website, www.mgmbill.org. That may be because such groups want to focus on other issues, such as same-sex marriage, Mr. Hess said, but it doesn't mean gay voters won't support it on Election Day.
"I think any time one group endorses another group's issues, there's a worry that it will take away from their support," Mr. Hess said. "Until recently, this was really controversial. It's still controversial, but less so."
What continues to be controversial is Mr. Hess' comic book, "Foreskin Man," which depicts a muscled blond superhero fighting "Monster Mohel," an evil-looking Jewish circumciser. "Nothing excites Monster Mohel more than cutting into the penile flesh of an eight-day-old infant boy," the comic book says.
Jewish organizations are appalled at the publication. "'Foreskin Man' traffics in some very ugly imagery," said Ms. Appel. "People who are fanatical in their beliefs may be willfully blind to the fact that they've crossed the line in their activism."
Mr. Hess stands behind his depiction of the Jewish mohel. "My position is that I fail to see how a superhero trying to save a Jewish boy from circumcision is anti-Semitic," said Mr. Hess. "It's not anti-Jewish, it's anti-Jewish circumcision."
Studies show that circumcision is on the decline in the West. Estimates vary, but analysts say that about 30 percent of European men are circumcised, while rates of circumcision in the United States have dropped from 80 percent to less than 50 percent.
Even so, "It's nearly universal with Jewish boys," said Ms. Appel. Studies also have shown that circumcision can reduce the transmission of HIV and other diseases.
That doesn't justify subjecting infants to "this harmful, painful and irreversible procedure," said Mr. Schofield.
"It's up to us to reach out and let people know that this is not a joke," he said. "It's a real human rights issue."
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