JCRC launches campaign to defeat S.F. circumcision ban

The battle is on to keep circumcision legal in San Francisco.

The S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council has begun partnering with religious, legal and medical organizations and individuals to map out a strategy for the November election. Their goal: to defeat a ballot measure that, if passed, would criminalize circumcisions.

Mark Leno

Last month, the so-called Male Genital Mutilation Bill qualified for the Nov. 8 ballot. It would ban circumcision in San Francisco, with no religious exemptions allowed.

Parents, doctors and mohels authorizing or performing circumcisions would be liable for a $1,000 fine and/or a year in prison.

JCRC’s strategy includes fundraising, voter education and, eventually, ads, bumper stickers and all the trappings of a political campaign.

So far, JCRC has established the Committee for Parental Choice and Religious Freedom, and brought in the political polling firm Tulchin Research as consultants. The campaign has launched a website: www.stopcircban.com.

“We’ve got 86 coalition members on board,” said JCRC Associate Director Abby Michelson Porth. “They are coming in faster than we can process them all. These are medical authorities, civil liberties scholars, national Muslim and Jewish organizations, HIV researchers, infectious disease specialists, rabbis and imams.”

The measure, which has drawn national attention, is seen as a frontal attack on a central tenet of Judaism.

Zahra Billoo

“The stakes are very high,” said Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs. “Circumcision is a fundamental aspect of Jewish ritual practice and Jewish identity. While we certainly hope the prospect of [a law] being enacted is remote, the precedent it would set and the message it would send would be terrible, not just in the United States but around the world.

“We don’t just want it defeated,” he added, “we want it defeated soundly.”

In addition to Jewish organizations such as the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the national arms of Jewish denominations, many non-Jewish groups have lent their names to the coalition.

They include the Muslim American Society, the S.F. Interfaith Council, the Islamic Networks Group, and prominent religious leaders, such as Catholic Archbishop George Niederauer of the S.F. Archdiocese.

Niederauer condemned the initiative in a May 23 letter sent to the San Francisco Chronicle.

“Although the issue does not concern Christians directly, 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,” he wrote in the letter.

“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.”

Political figures also have endorsed the campaign, among them five sitting and former members of the S.F. Board of Supervisors and state Sen. Mark Leno.

“On its face it is clearly unconstitutional,” Leno said of the measure. “Every legal assessment I have seen confirms that. Unfortunately, our initiative process allows for unconstitutional measures to be put before voters.”

Porth said the themes of the campaign will include defending religious liberties, parental rights and health benefits of circumcision, which proponents say are proven.

“To criminalize a procedure that reduces the transmission of HIV, penile cancer, urinary tract infections and even cervical cancer seems to be an affront to science,” Porth said. “San Francisco is at its best when we unite against efforts to curtail our civil liberties. This measure seeks to place the government between doctor and moms and dads, and between faith traditions and their adherents.”

Added Leno, “Having lived now 30 years through the HIV/AIDS epidemic as a gay man in San Francisco, I am well aware that circumcision is a frontline defense against HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.”

The fight against the San Francisco ballot measure has brought a number of Muslim organizations into the JCRC-led coalition.

“Circumcision is required for Muslim males in emulation of the Prophet Abraham,” said Maha El Genaidi, executive director of the Islamic Networks Group. “A ban that specifically targets a religious practice of Muslims and that has been proven to be medically beneficial is a violation of First Amendment rights that guarantee all Americans the right to religious freedom.”

Zahra Billoo, the Bay Area director of the Council on American Islamic Relations, noted that her group rarely finds itself on the same political side as groups such as the Orthodox Union, adding that the measure is an assault on the freedoms of both religions.

“The civil rights of Jews and Muslims are being impacted,” she told JTA. “We don’t agree on all things all the time, but we do find common cause in many areas. An attack on one religion is an attack on all religions.”


Sue Fishkoff
of JTA contributed to this report.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.