Parents, circumcision and the law

At first, it seems strange for Christians to jump into the firestorm surrounding the Nov. 8 ballot initiative in San Francisco to ban circumcisions. After all, the issue of whether gentiles had to be circumcised when converting to Christianity was — literally — settled in the age of the apostles.

Nevertheless, the Catholic archbishop of San Francisco quickly went public with his views on this hot-button issue.

“As a religious leader I can only view with alarm the prospect that this misguided initiative would make it illegal for Jews and Muslims who practice their religion to live in San Francisco — for that is what the passage of such a law would mean,” stated Archbishop George Niederauer, in an letter to the San Francisco Chronicle.

“Apart from the religious aspect, the citizens of San Francisco should be outraged at the prospect of city government dictating to parents in such a sensitive matter regarding the health and hygiene of their children.”

However, the letter the editors published directly beneath the archbishop’s openly stated — in bitter, satirical terms — the anger behind this effort to limit the religious freedom of parents on this highly personal question.

A reader in San Francisco suggested that readers be polled on this question: “Should government allow parents the right to remove functional tissue from their children when there is no immediate medical need?”

Citizens could then choose one of the following answers.

“A. No, it violates the rights of the individual child.

“B. Yes, the parents’ religion might demand human sacrifice.

“C. Yes, children have no rights, not even to their own body parts.”

No doubt about it, a growing number of modern Americans are convinced that it’s time for government officials to do some cutting and snipping in the pages of the holy books that define some of the world’s major religions.

“What you have here is an assault, by a popular referendum, on a central ritual in a recognized ancient religion,” noted Marc Stern, associate general counsel for legal advocacy at the American Jewish Committee. While the current initiative may seem brazen, “it’s really nothing new. It’s easy for historians to find sources showing how the Greeks and Romans mocked the Jews for practicing circumcision.”

So far, the most shocking twist in this ballot-box drama has been provided by “Foreskin Man,” a comic book produced by strategists in this campaign against “Male Genital Mutilation,” a phrase crafted to echo global efforts to ban female genital mutilation. The star of these books is a stereotypically Aryan superhero who protects children from the “Monster Mohel,” a bearded villain wearing all of the distinctive garb of an Orthodox Jew.

The introduction notes: “Nothing excites Monster Mohel more than cutting into the penile flesh of an eight-day-old infant boy.”

It is easy, noted Stern, to focus on the stark implications of this initiative for Jews and Muslims, for whom circumcision is a defining rite of faith and identity. If passed, the San Francisco measure would make circumcision on male minors a misdemeanor crime punishable by a $1,000 fine or a year in jail. A similar ballot measure was recently withdrawn in Santa Monica, Calif.

In the end, he said, the upcoming vote should be seen as part of a trend in which increasing numbers of activists are focusing attention on limiting parental rights, even when parents are making decisions that involve religious liberty.

“We live in an age in which it is common for mainstream scholars in mainstream schools to produce entire books arguing that the state should prevent parents from sending their children to parochial schools,” he noted.

“The theme that runs through all this is the conviction that parents must yield to what society thinks is best for their children, even in matters of faith. … These cases keep coming up and all kinds of religious believers are starting to realize that.”

Thus, it was not surprising that the National Association of Evangelicals released a statement joining those released by Jews, Muslims and Catholics in opposition to the ballot initiative and in defense of the broader First Amendment issues linked to it.

“Jews, Muslims and Christians all trace our spiritual heritage back to Abraham. Biblical circumcision begins with Abraham,” noted the Rev. Leith Anderson, the group’s president. “No American government should restrict this historic tradition. Essential religious liberties are at stake.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.