Balancing Religious Liberties with Child Safety: Akiva Shapiro


As a constitutional lawyer and an Orthodox Jew, Akiva Shapiro is more accustomed to suing the government on religious liberties grounds than defending government regulation. But two years ago Shapiro entered the brawl surrounding metzitzah b’peh (MbP), a controversial practice in which a mohel performs direct oral suction during a bris. He joined the fray after the city passed a regulation requiring that parents be informed of the potential risks of this practice to infants, and then ultra-Orthodox groups, as well as some individual mohelim, filed a federal lawsuit in protest. (The city took action after confirming 11 cases of herpes simplex virus acquired by infants from MbP in recent years, resulting in two infant deaths and two cases of permanent brain damage).

“It’s a parental rights case,” said Shapiro, a married father of four who has written multiple friend-of-the-court briefs and represented numerous medical organizations pro bono in defense of the city. “This law makes it so the parents are the ones making decisions about their kids, not somebody else.”

With Shapiro’s help, the city won its case in federal district court in January 2013; in December, ultra-Orthodox organizations appealed. Again, Shapiro donated his time to defend the opinions of infectious disease specialists and others in the medical community. Both sides are awaiting the appellate court’s decision.

“It is important for somebody within the Orthodox community to be involved and say, ‘This is not an Orthodox-versus-the-rest-of-the-world thing,’” said Shapiro on a recent afternoon at his office at law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

Shapiro stresses the need for balance, in general, between concern for public health and the right to religious practice. “Our religious liberties are foundational,” he says. “But they don’t extend to putting life in jeopardy.”

Family man: To unwind, Shapiro likes to watch “Parenthood” with his wife after their kids have gone to sleep. No stranger to controversy, he is also working pro bono on other high-profile cases, including Zivotofsky v. Kerry, in which he is representing members of Congress who maintain that Jerusalem-born Americans have the right to have ‘Israel’ listed on their passports as birthplace. That case will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in the fall.