SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A San Francisco ballot measure to ban circumcision is spurring charges of anti-Semitism while galvanizing faith leaders and politicians who think the initiative threatens religious freedom.
"It's almost unbelievable that this made the ballot," said Rabbi Reuven Taff of Mosaic Law Congregation in Sacramento. "It's discriminatory. Not only against Jewish families but also against Muslims and anybody else who has a strong tradition of circumcising their male children."
The initiative, which qualified for the San Francisco ballot in May, has drawn national attention. The measure would make circumcision illegal for boys younger than 18. Violators could face a year in jail or a fine of $1,000, or both.
If approved, it would become the first of its kind in the country.
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Circumcision, removing the male foreskin, has biblical roots, and many believe that it is commanded by God explicitly in a covenant with Abraham.
Supporters of the bill call circumcision "male genital mutilation" and say the argument that it is traditional does not mean circumcision is right.
The initiative allows for a medical exclusion, but not a religious exception.
"What it boils down to is this: People are removing healthy body parts from an unconsenting child," said Lloyd Schofield, the main proponent of the measure called the "San Francisco MGM (male genital mutilation) Bill."
"Just because something has been done repeatedly doesn't make it moral or ethical," he said.
Schofield, who declines to say whether he is circumcised, denied allegations that the bill is anti-Semitic.
"That just takes the focus away from what they are doing," Schofield said of the anti-Semitism charges.
Few people outside San Francisco, the city that banned the McDonald's Happy Meal, noticed the measure until organizers announced that they had gathered the necessary 7,100 signatures to qualify for the November ballot.
"Everything goofy comes out of San Francisco. A lot of people didn't take it seriously," said Sacramento physician Jeffery Rabinovitz, who also is a mohel, a person qualified to perform the rite of circumcision. "But they do now."
Since then, opposition to the bill has been wide-ranging and interfaith.
Last week, U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., announced that he will introduce a bill to prevent cities from banning male circumcision, and California state Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, reportedly will introduce similar state legislation.
The National Association of Evangelicals, which represents 45,000 churches, also opposes the bill.
"Jews, Muslims and Christians all trace our spiritual heritage back to Abraham. Biblical circumcision begins with Abraham," Leith Anderson, president of the Christian organization, said in a statement. "No American government should restrict this historic tradition. Essential religious liberties are at stake."
Supporters, who call themselves "intactivists," said allegations that they are anti-religious or critical of a particular religion are not true.
Circumcision rates have declined in the United States for the past several years. Today, about half of all boys born in hospitals are circumcised, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Medical groups have said the practice is not harmful and that the decision should be left to parents. The American Academy of Pediatrics is expected to release a report on circumcision this year. Studies also have shown that circumcision helps reduce HIV rates among some groups.
Much of the controversy around the San Francisco measure centers on a comic called Foreskin Man, drawn by Matthew Hess, one of the proponents of the bill.
The comic, on the main anti-circumcision Web site, features a blond "superhero" battling a demonic-looking "Monster Mohel."
"To me this is blatant anti-Semitism, something you would see in Nazi Germany," said Taff, the rabbi.
Hess, who lives in San Diego, said no one complained about a similar cartoon he drew of a doctor performing a circumcision.
"I'm not attacking Jews; I'm attacking one thing they do," Hess said.
Rabbi Nancy Wechsler-Azen of Congregation Beth Shalom in Carmichael, Calif., said she received a call from a concerned Catholic last week.
"Jews believe it is divinely mandated," she said. "But this doesn't only affect Jews, and I think people realize this."