Lawmakers enter circumcision flap
by Heather Cassell
A handful of proponents of the anti-circumcision ballot measure that is set for November's election disrupted a July 21 news conference announcing state legislation that might halt the proposition before San Franciscan residents have a chance to vote on it.
And in related news, there will be a hearing today (Thursday, July 28) in San Francisco Superior Court on a lawsuit filed by a coalition of Jewish and Muslim groups seeking to remove the proposition from the ballot.
The proposition, which qualified for the ballot in May, seeks to criminalize anyone practicing circumcision on boys under the age of 18 within San Francisco. Violations would result in a misdemeanor with a fine of up to $1,000 or imprisonment in county jail for up to one year, or both.
The proposition allows for a well-defined medical exclusion, but not a religious exception.
Last week, Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles), who was joined by Speaker Pro Tempore Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco) and state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), announced a bill that would hand oversight of male circumcision to the state, pre-empting local jurisdictions from enacting local regulations or bans.
The legislators were joined by Dr. Kenneth Tai, a pediatrician who also works in internal medicine at North East Medical Services in the Sunset, which hosted the news conference.
Protesters, many of whom call themselves "intactivists," converged on Leno, an out gay legislator who joined the bill as a principal co-author on the Senate side, prior to the start of the press conference. Agitated, they closed in on Leno as he calmly listened and began to debate the protesters until Ma began the news conference.
The protesters hovered over the elected officials throughout the news conference as they stood at a podium in front of the clinic. They held large signs with pictures of babies asking, "You're going to cut off what?" among other slogans.
Police officers attempted to move the protesters back on the sidewalk next to the clinic, but they continued to crowd the legislators. Gatto politely asked the demonstrators to move away from the podium reminding them it was the lawmakers' press conference.
Unsatisfied, the protesters continued to pressure the legislators to answer their questions, attempted to debate the issue, and requested a public debate throughout the event.
Several times, police officers requested the demonstrators to refrain from disrupting the event.
"Why are they so intent on taking away the people's right to vote? That's what I would like to know," said David Lane, a Fairfax resident, one of the vocal protesters upset by the legislators' attempts to circumvent the ballot proposition.
Brian Levitt, a San Francisco gay Jewish activist with Jews for the Rights of the Child, agreed.
"It should be outlawed," said Levitt of male circumcision. "It's important for people to know that not all Jews believe in this."
Introduced earlier this year, AB 768 originally amended the Health and Safety Code to provide bio-fuel incentives, but Gatto did what is known as a "gut and amend" to the bill July 7 to take on San Francisco's anti-circumcision ballot measure, reported Capitol Weekly .
The bill now regulates the practice of male circumcision by "precluding" local community and government attempts to pass anti-circumcision laws, giving the state authority over regulating the practice.
If signed by Governor Jerry Brown, the law will take effect immediately, said Gatto, who put an urgency clause into the bill. The lawmakers are confident the bill will garner the support it needs to make it to the governor's desk, Gatto and Leno said.
It is anticipated to reach Brown's desk before October 7, added Ma.
"One can easily imagine the mischief and the confusion that would occur if each of the 481 cities in the state of California tried to regulate medical procedures by the ballot box," said Gatto, mentioning a similar circumcision ban that had been proposed in his district in Santa Monica. That measure was immediately dropped after the release of the controversial comic book Foreskin Man in June, according to media reports.
Foreskin Man was created and published by Matthew Hess, the national leader of the anti-circumcision movement and a proponent of the San Francisco proposition. In one installment of the comic, the Mohel, who performs the Brit milah, or the "covenant of circumcision" and a naming ceremony for Jewish boys, is named "Monster Mohel." Arriving on the scene is the blond haired, blue-eyed "Foreskin Man" action hero who saves the day, leaving the child in the care of Amazon and biker intactivists.
Gatto's bill was inspired by the introduction of the Religious and Parental Rights Defense Act of 2011, HR 2400, June 24 in Congress by Representative Brad Sherman (D- California), he said.
Sherman, who is Jewish, proposed the legislation in direct response to San Francisco's anti-circumcision ballot measure, according to a June 14 news release from the congressman's office.
HR 2400 is currently being reviewed by a congressional committee.
California already prohibits local jurisdictions from limiting medical professionals' practices in the Business and Professions Code, Leno pointed out. Gatto's legislation amends the law, clarifying it to specifically include male circumcision, he said.
The legislation shouldn't interfere with the current lawsuit, Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco et al. v. John Arntz . Arntz is director of the San Francisco Elections Department.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the San Francisco Medical Society have both filed amicus briefs in support of the pre-election challenge.
Leno called out proponents of the anti-circumcision bill on the anti-Semitic propaganda that the campaigned unveiled last month.
"You would have thought that Matthew Hess would have apologized, backed away from this hateful literature, and taken down from his website when it was brought to national attention, but he did not," said Leno, who is Jewish. "He stood by it. He defended it. He even made a comment that he saw some of himself in the superhero. This is reason enough for San Franciscans to be concerned about the proposed measure."
Gatto agreed with Leno.
"This is an affront to personal and parental religious liberties," he said. "The stereotypes in this comic book one might expect to see in 1911, but not 2011. They have no basis and they are totally inappropriate in modern political discourse."
"We've seen some very hateful ballot initiatives in the last decade, measures that have amounted to declarations of war on certain groups," continued Gatto. "I don't want our great state to degenerate into a back and forth war where groups use the ballot box to attack and take away other groups rights, beliefs, or practices."
Proponents of the anti-circumcision bill claim they aren't involved with Foreskin Man. Jonathan Conte, a 30-year-old anti-circumcision activist with the Bay Area Intactivists, said it's the project of "one individual."
But Hess, the comic book author, was critical of his critics last month. "That's a smear tactic," Hess told the B.A.R. at the time. "We are trying to protect Jewish boys just as we are trying to protect all boys."
"The literature that they are suggesting [we are] supposedly using to promote [the] SF [male genital mutilation] bill is a lie, or at the very least extreme[ly] misleading," said Conte. "It's never been promoted or used in literature here or on the SF MGM bill website."
The San Francisco City Attorney's office has also weighed in on the matter, saying the proposition would be unconstitutional even if approved by voters.
"The City Attorney's office had to acknowledge that the proposal would be patently unconstitutional if narrowly applied to religious practices – particularly against the backdrop of discriminatory political advocacy advanced by the measure's proponents," said a news release from City Attorney Dennis Herrera's office.
Usually the office refrains from issuing a position on the merits of challenges to duly qualified ballot measures, but the propaganda created by proponents disturbed the office, it stated in a July 20 news release.
The city isn't "reaching a legal conclusion" on behalf of the plaintiffs, said Therese Stewart, chief deputy city attorney, in a statement on the website. At the same time, the voters couldn't "be asked to vote" to prohibit religious practices while the same practices were being performed "under non-religious auspices," she said.