It would be hard to imagine a more apocalyptic battle between synagogue and state than the ballot-box battle that is unfolding in San Francisco over the right of Jews (and anyone else) to circumcise their newborn males. Now the battle is spreading down the left coast to Santa Monica. I know that some folks in the Los Angeles Times newsroom get the religious liberty implications of all of this. Why? Because columnist Tim Rutten has already written about the issue:
... (Even) if it were to pass, the proposal does such obvious violence to the 1st Amendment that its chances of surviving constitutional review are even more improbable than Donald Trump's hair color.
Still, there's something so breathtakingly wrong about the presence of such a proposition on any ballot that its implications are worth at least a few minutes of reflection. On one level, it's simply the most recent and egregious example of how California's long experiment with direct democracy has gone stunningly wrong at every level of government. Simply because more than 12,000 residents signed a petition, you have the people of an American city voting on whether or not to proscribe one of the central rituals of an entire religious community -- in this case, Jews, who have been required to circumcise male infants within eight days of birth since the time of Abraham. Many Muslims also practice circumcision for religious reasons, while significant numbers of other American parents elect the procedure for hygienic or health reasons.
However, the latest Times article on the Santa Monica proposal falls short -- in my opinion -- when it comes to covering the two crucial issues involved in this fight. Yes, this is a public health fight and that angle must be covered, in large part because there are highly informed medical experts on both sides and their debates are lively.
However, the crucial legal question is whether the medical opinions and evidence can trump the religious liberty of Jewish parents to make this decision to follow the tenets of their faith. Does the state, in effect, have the right to change the doctrinal content of the Jewish faith by moving this rite from the first week of life to the, well, first week of adult life?
When you are asking a church-state separation question -- yes, synagogue-state in this case, and mosque, too -- of that magnitude, you need to call in a variety of legal and religious voices and see how they line up. In this case, is there going to be much of a debate? Is there a judge, even in California, who is ready to ban one of the defining rites in Judaism?
As I said, the Times team knows about this conflict. Thus, we read:
Circumcision of male infants is a religious requirement in Judaism and a cleanliness-related custom in many Islamic communities. As a result, the effort by MGM Bill to put forth the initiative is raising concern among religious organizations, which contend that a ban would violate the 1st Amendment prohibition against government interference with a person's practice of religion.
The measure would make it a misdemeanor to circumcise a boy in Santa Monica before he turned 18. The maximum penalty would be a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Circumcisions would be permitted only for medical reasons, with no religious exemptions.
"Jews don't circumcise for medical reasons; it's for traditional reasons," said Andrew Shpall, a Woodland Hills urologist and mohel. A mohel (pronounced moy-el) is a Jewish person trained in the practice of brit milah, or the covenant of circumcision. Shpall added that there was some disagreement in the medical community about whether all male babies should be circumcised.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, in effect, argues that parents need solid, unbiased information before making this choice. However, the reason that the synagogue-state conflict looms is because the ban would erase that choice.
So, from the perspective of the Times team, what does the heart of this debate sound like? Brace yourself:
Jena Troutman, an anti-circumcision activist in Santa Monica, said concerns about poor hygiene and transmission of sexual diseases in uncircumcised males could be managed through education. "If you raise your child to be smart and practice safe sex," circumcision is unnecessary, she said. "If you're raising a dumb kid who won't use a condom, then go ahead and cut off two-thirds of his nerve endings and one-half of his penile skin."
Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said the measure might pass a 1st Amendment challenge. "If there is some support [among medical doctors or psychologists] for the idea that circumcision hurts children, the government could do this," he said.
That's it. That's all the reader gets. All it takes is "some support" among doctors to overturn America's very high walls of protection for religious liberty?
Trust me, reporters will find interest in this story if they start calling church-state think tanks, Jewish organizations, Muslim community centers, etc. Prepare for some arguments -- medical, legal and theological. Cover both sides of these debates, because this is a serious story worthy of close attention.