Monday, July 9, 2012

Circumcision: What can/should the government limit?

Turkish Boys Dressed for Circumcision
Circumcision is not something that we talk about a whole lot in polite conversation in the USA. It is a topic that most people know about, but few discuss. Most males in the USA are circumcised as infants. If you are a gentile it usually happens in the hospital soon after birth. If you are Jewish it happens eight days later during a ceremony with a Rabbi.

In Christian circles it is a topic that does surface a bit more since the Bible mentions it numerous times. The letters of Paul and the book of Acts recount some of the debates over circumcision that took place in the early church. And even though the New Testament comes down against the requirement of circumcision for gentile Christians, most in the USA are circumcised, but not for religious reasons.

 But outside of the USA the topic is looked at quite differently. I remember an American couple living in the UK who were trying to get their newborn son circumcised. No hospital or doctor would do it. The couples had to find a local Rabbi to perform the procedure. The locals who were part of our small group were quite vocal that the child should not be circumcised since they considered it barbaric. It was my first encounter with anyone who was opposed to the practice. For me, it was just what happened in life.

During my recent trip to Turkey I witnessed a different take on the practice. While it is banned in the UK and   quietly done in the USA, it is celebrated in Turkey. There the boy is not circumcised until he is eight years old. The day is a big party and friends and family are invited to witness the procedure. A few days prior to that day the young boy walks around with a special hat with feathers and a sort of cloak (see pic above). Everyone knows that this means his day of circumcision is soon approaching. I cringed several times as I walked through the streets of Istanbul and saw a young boy with a hat and feather.

I bring this up because the practice of religious circumcision has been in the news twice lately.

In Germany, a judge has ruled that the practice must be banned because it commits bodily harm on the young boy. Muslims and Jews have reacted against the ruling. In New York, health officials are considering banning one form of circumcision since it can cause the infant to contract herpes.

Another recent example of the state imposing its will on religious practice, though not because of health concerns, is France's ban on Muslim women wearing headscarves. 

My question is this. To what degree does the state have jurisdiction over the freedom of religious practice? Can or should the state ban a practice if it deems it to be harmful? I am not aware of any states that allow animal sacrifice, and even the use of animals in worship, as with snake handlers, is usually banned. But at what point does the state have the right to stop a religion from carrying out its practice?


  1. To ban one form of circumcision because it can bring on herpes? What about the fact that cervical cancers are significantly lower among Jewish women and those whose partners are circumcised? PLEASE don't tell me this is a choice of valuing a male child's life over a woman's.

    I am not a huge fan of government taking sides in religious conversations, period. This seems to be a case where butting out could very well be in order.


    Controversies and criticisms

    In 1993, the issue of animal sacrifice was taken to the United States Supreme Court in the case of Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah. The court ruled that animal cruelty laws targeted specifically at Yoruba were unconstitutional.[49] The Yoruba practice of animal sacrifice has seen no significant legal challenges since then.
    In 2009, legal and religious issues that related to animal sacrifice, animal rights and freedom of religion were taken to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Jose Merced, President Templo Yoruba Omo Orisha Texas, Inc., v. City of Euless. The court ruling that the Merced case of the freedom of exercise of religion was meritorious and prevailing and that Merced was entitled under the Texas Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (TRFRA) to an injunction preventing the city of Euless, Texas from enforcing its ordinances that burdened his religious practices relating to the use of animals,[50] (see Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 110.005(a)(2)) without the court having to reach his claims under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. But still, no matter that the city of Euless, even after losing a drawn-out lawsuit that tested the boundaries of religious liberty in Texas, was still searching for new ways to shut down Merced's spiritual practices.[51]

  3. You ask, does the state have jurisdiction over freedom of religion..... ? do parents have the right to mutilate their child? Maybe, no circumcision until child is old enough to make his own decision... We hear stories of African ladies getting female circumcisions, and everyone is up in arms about it, but it's socially acceptable to mutilate a newborn? WTF?

  4. Any mutilation of the body of someone who cannot consent to it for cosmetic or ritual reasons should be banned, in my opinion. That would include male and female genital mutilation as well as foot-binding and ear-piercing. Jewish and Muslim individuals are more than welcome to elect to have the procedure carried out once they are old enough to decide for themselves without undo coercion.