By Jonah Lowenfeld
June 15, 2011
On Tuesday, Congressman Brad Sherman announced he is preparing to introduce a bill in congress to prevent municipalities nationwide from enacting laws banning male circumcision.
Today, The Journal has learned, California State Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D – Burbank/Glendale/Silver Lake) will begin the process of introducing similar legislation in Sacramento.
These legislative moves to stop cities from banning the circumcision of male babies come just one month after a proposition banning all circumcision in the City of San Francisco was approved for inclusion on a November ballot there.
Gatto has represented the Los Angeles-area 43rd district for just over a year; previously he worked for Sherman, a Democratic congressman from Sherman Oaks, for five years, starting as a field representative and rising to the position of district director. It was a conversation with his former boss that convinced the 36-year-old Assemblyman to join the fray over circumcision at the state level and attempt to prevent cities in California from banning a practice that is a sacred rite to Jews and Muslims.
“He talked to me about how important the issue was, and it was, quite frankly, an easy sell,” Gatto said. Sherman is Jewish and an ardent supporter of Jewish causes; Gatto, who is Christian, pointed out “there are a lot of Christians, too, who believe that circumcision dates back to the origins of our faith.”
Gatto decided to create a bill focused on protecting a parent’s right to circumcise sons less than one year old when he saw “Foreskin Man.” The comic book, available online, was written by Matthew Hess, one of the central backers of the San Francisco anti-circumcision ballot measure. “Foreskin Man” has been roundly denounced as anti-Semitic by the Anti-Defamation League and other groups. “I had to rub my eyes and tell myself that it was 2011, and tell myself that this was not something being put out in 1905,” Gatto said.
Even as the Federal and California State bills are advancing, the Committee for Parental Choice and Religious Freedom, a new coalition spearheaded by the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) in the San Francisco Bay Area, is ramping up efforts to convince San Francisco voters to reject the proposed ban in November.
All 11 members of San Francisco’s City and County Board of Supervisors have joined the coalition, as well as two-dozen prominent doctors, a handful of HIV/STD researchers and many local and national civic and religious leaders.
“The mayor of Santa Monica just joined our coalition,” said Abby Michelson Porth, associate director of the JCRC.
Both Gatto and Sherman said they were not coordinating their legislative agendas with the JCRC, however Gatto said he is open to collaboration. Told about the Sherman bill on Tuesday morning, Porth said the news came as a surprise. She would not comment on either bill.
It remains to be seen how Sherman’s bill, titled The Religious and Parental Rights Defense Act of 2011, and Gatto’s bill will progress in Congress and the California State Assembly. As of Wednesday morning, neither had been formally introduced.
On Tuesday, Sherman said that he is gathering cosponsors. “One of note is Keith Ellison,” Sherman said, referring to the Minnesota Democrat, the first Muslim American to be elected to Congress.
“I think the voters of San Francisco would vote down this ridiculous proposal,” Sherman added, “but parental rights and religious rights should not even have to run that gauntlet.”
Nevertheless, Sherman said he believes a law protecting the rights of parents to decide whether or not to circumcise their sons is still necessary. He said that precedent does exist for the federal government to pass laws superseding city laws that would create obstacles to religious freedom.
Gatto, for his part, said that the State of California has declared in certain cases that its laws trump certain city ballot initiatives—a practice known as “occupying the field”—and could do so in this case.
But for either the federal or state government to enact a law preventing cities from banning circumcision, Sherman and Gatto will have to show that the United States or the State of California has a vested interest in preventing the establishment of obstacles to the surgical procedure.
To do so, they will have to rely on the act’s religious underpinnings, the perceived prevalence of circumcision in American culture, and—perhaps most importantly—medical evidence showing that it offers health benefits.
In Sherman’s “Dear Colleague” letter outlining the bill to other members of Congress, he noted that, “recent studies have demonstrated that circumcised males have a lower risk of contracting HIV, human papilloma virus, and other sexually transmitted diseases.” He also mentioned that male circumcision has been practiced for “thousands of years,” and called it “a deeply important ceremony for several religions.” Furthermore, Sherman wrote, “American parents have chosen circumcision for over 75% of male children.”
Bringing the conversation about male circumcision onto the floor of the California Statehouse and the House of Representatives could also draw increased attention to the movement to ban it, known as intactivism.
J. Steven Svoboda, founder and executive director of Attorneys for the Rights of the Child, sees the potential of these bills to increase awareness of his cause. He said he has not yet seen either bill and so would not comment on their specifics.
“Nobody knows for sure, but when you’re perceived as a fringe movement, typically any publicity is good,” Svoboda said.
However, he said he believes the time has come for a more nuanced discussion of the issues at hand. As the head of the only “legally focused intactivist organization,” Svoboda pointed to an existing federal law that prohibits any cutting of the genitals of women under the age of 18, which is being used as the foundation of the movement to ban the ritual.
That law, Svoboda said, is problematic in light of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
“You can’t protect girls without protecting boys,” Svoboda said. “There’s no way for that to legally pass muster.”
Sherman said he did not consult the text of the Federal Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act of 1995 in composing the bill he will put forth in Congress.
“I think people who make that analogy are so wrong that their thinking does not color my thinking,” Sherman said.
He added that he “would angrily denounce anyone who thought I should consider any talk of female circumcision and male circumcision in the same conversation. They are not analogous.”
Svoboda said he isn’t trying to draw a one-to-one comparison between the cutting of male and female genitalia.
“There certainly are distinctions,” he said. “I’m not saying they’re the same. But there are certain forms of female cutting that are prohibited under the federal law that are less invasive than male circumcision.”