Judge strikes circumcision ban from S.F. ballot

(JTA) — A state Superior Court judge in California ruled that a proposal to ban circumcision for minors must be struck from San Francisco’s November ballot.

In a final ruling on Thursday, Judge Loretta Giorgi affirmed her tentative ruling from the previous day in which she agreed with the plaintiffs that the proposed ballot initiative is “expressly pre-empted” by state law because the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that “circumcision is a widely practiced medical procedure.”

California law prohibits local governments from regulating medical procedures.

“It serves no legitimate purpose to allow a measure whose invalidity can be determined as a matter of law to remain on the ballot after such a ruling has been made," the judge said.

The initiative, if passed, would have made the practice of circumcision a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or up to one year in jail, and offered no exemption for religious ritual. The initiative had gotten on the ballot in San Francisco after anti-circumcision activists launched a campaign last fall to collect the signatures necessary to force a vote on the issue. In all, 12,000 people signed the petition to have it put on the November ballot.

Jewish groups then launched a counter-campaign, joined by Muslims and doctors, to derail the ballot initiative. They hailed Thursday’s ruling as an affirmation of the right to free exercise of religion.

“We appreciate Judge Giorgi’s careful review of the proposed measure, and her willingness to put a stop to this extreme, hurtful measure,” said Abby Michelson Porth, the associate director of San Francisco’s Jewish Community Relations Council — one of several plaintiffs in the suit — in an interview with j., the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish newspaper. “There is no place on the ballot for a measure that contradicts California law and would put doctors in jail for performing a procedure with known health benefits and a religious purpose. The court ruling is an affirmation of the values of parental choice and religious freedom.”

Other Jewish leaders added their praise of this week’s ruling.

"Today’s ruling is a win for religious liberty, a win for American values and a win for all San Franciscans," said Howie Beigelman, the director of state affairs for the Orthodox Union. "Heartened as we are by polls suggesting this measure will be resoundingly defeated at the ballot box if it ever gets there, we hope that courts taking up this appeal will affirm this ruling so that it never does.”

Daniel Mariaschin, the executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, said, "The ballot initiative would have directly impinged on Jews’ ability to carry out a basic pillar of our faith."

Matthew Hess, the anti-circumcision activist who authored the language of the San Francisco ballot measure, told JTA that the measure’s proponents were working out the details of an appeal.

"The measure didn’t target one specific religion — it targeted all forced circumcisions of male minors," Hess said. "We feel that we have a strong case for an appeal.”

Hess argues that circumcision is not a medical procedure, but this week the judge rejected that argument by Michael Kinane, a lawyer for Hess’ coalition.

Michael Jacobs, the lawyer who represented the alliance opposing the ballot initiative, told JTA that he was pleased the judge had agreed with the core legal argument. He said that an appeal was unlikely to succeed.

“Any appeal would have to occur very quickly in order to be meaningful for the upcoming ballot,” Jacobs said. “We are quite optimistic that the appellate court will see it as clearly as Judge Giorgi did.”

The anti-circumcision movement has hit rocky waters of late. An anti-circumcision comic book written by Hess was described by the Anti-Defamation League as “grotesque anti-Semitic imagery and themes.” The furor over the comic book led to the withdrawal of a similar anti-circumicion ballot initiative in the Southern California city of Santa Monica.

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