Cutting Back on First Amendment Rights

Religion and Privacy on the Ballot in San Francisco

The 1st Amendment protects many of our most treasured rights, including Free Exercise of Religion. But what happens when an alleged health concern urges voters to override 1st Amendment rights? San Franciscans may soon be able to tell us.

A group wanting to put an end to infant male circumcision, known as “intactivists”, have received more than the required amount of signatures on their initiative to have it placed on the ballot. Voters will make their choice as to whether or not the city government should be able to ban a practice that is a fundamental part of some religions, as well as a privacy issue that should be between an infant’s parents and pediatrician.

The primary proponent of this measure, San Francisco resident Lloyd Schofield, had this to say on the issue: “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.” No word on what Mr. Schofield thinks of giving a child medicine that may taste bad, or food he doesn’t want to eat, or encouraging a minimum amount of sleep per day.

There is a small amount of irony, tinged bittersweet, that a city like San Francisco- which has long prided itself on being a bastion of freedom, individuality, and choice- would take the lead on a measure that gives government access to one of the most personal decisions a family can make.

The issue of male circumcision has become the topic of much heated debate. There are some who say there are no medical benefits to male circumcision, making it an unnecessary surgical procedure. There are others who point to studies showing that circumcised infants have less infections, both genital and in the urinary tract. International research has shown that increased circumcision rates have lowered the infection rates of men with HIV in African and South American countries. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has not released a recommendation yet for either argument, stating that the research is not complete enough to determine what recommendation should be made for American men. It can be reasoned that while male circumcision has slowed the spread of HIV in some African and South American nations, those are areas where the populations average 30% circumcised, and the spread of HIV is primarily through heterosexual relationships. In the United States, approximately 80% of the male population is circumcised, and the spread of HIV is primarily through homosexual relationships. Until the CDC has accounted for these differences in the research, they will not release a recommendation.

San Francisco, however, is not concerned with recommendations. Come November, the voters of San Francisco will be deciding whether the city can fine, and give a misdemeanor criminal charge to, anyone who has a child circumcised. It is unclear whether that fine applies to the parents, the doctor or “mohel”, or both. It is clear that the Jewish community, led by Rabbi Gil Yosef Leeds, is prepared for a legal battle to defend their right to practice their religion as it has always been practiced.

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