SAN FRANCISCO - A group seeking to ban the circumcision of male children in San Francisco has succeeded in getting its measure on the Nov. 8 ballot, meaning voters will be asked to weigh in on what until now has been a private family matter.
City elections officials confirmed Wednesday that the initiative received enough valid signatures from city residents - more than 7,700 - to be on the ballot. Initiatives must receive at least 7,168 signatures to qualify.
The measure, if passed, would bar circumcision among males under age 18. The practice would become a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or up to one year in jail. There would be no religious exemptions.
The initiative appears to be the first of its kind in the country to actually make it to this stage, though a larger national debate over the health benefits of circumcision has been going on for many years. Banning circumcision would almost certainly prompt legal challenges alleging violations of the First Amendment's guarantee of the freedom to exercise one's religious beliefs.
Supporters of the ban say male circumcision is a form of genital mutilation that is unnecessary, extremely painful, and even dangerous. They say parents should not be able to force the decision on their young child.
"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," said Lloyd Schofield, the measure's lead proponent and a longtime San Francisco resident.
Schofield said the cutting away of the foreskin from the penis was a more invasive medical procedure than many new parents or childless individuals realize.
Opponents say such claims are alarmingly misleading, and they call the proposal a clear violation of constitutionally protected religious freedoms.
"For a city that's renowned for being progressive and open-minded, to even have to consider such an intolerant proposition . . . it sets a dangerous precedent for all cities and states," said Rabbi Gil Yosef Leeds of Berkeley. Leeds is a certified "mohel," the person who traditionally performs ritual circumcisions in the Jewish faith.
He said he received calls every day from members of the local Jewish community concerned about the proposed ban. But he said he was relatively confident that even if the measure were approved, it would be abruptly - and indefinitely - tied up in litigation.
A similar effort to introduce a circumcision ban in the Massachusetts Legislature last year failed to gain traction.
Jews consider religious male circumcision a commandment from God. It also is widely practiced by Muslims. Most Christian denominations neither require nor forbid circumcision.
International health organizations have promoted circumcision as an important strategy for reducing the spread of the AIDS virus, based on studies that showed it could prevent AIDS among heterosexual men in Africa.
Research indicates that circumcision doesn't protect gay men from HIV.