SAN FRANCISCO — Two California lawmakers have introduced a bill that would pre-empt local governments from passing laws banning male circumcision and limit the enacting of such legislation to the state.
Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, said Thursday the bill came in response to recent efforts at the local level, including a November ballot measure to ban circumcision in San Francisco. A similar ban failed to make the ballot in Santa Monica.
San Francisco’s measure would prohibit circumcision of males under the age of 18, making it a misdemeanor punishable by fine or jail.
If the measure is still on the ballot at election time, San Francisco would be the first city in the U.S. to hold a public vote on banning male circumcision.
“I imagine that if one of these (ordinances) passes in one of those cities, then other cities might not be far behind,” Gatto said. “It’s a divisive use of the municipal ballot box, and in this case I think it’s appropriate for government to step in and act to protect individual rights.”
Proponents of the San Francisco ordinance have said the practice is a form of genital mutilation that is not necessary and potentially dangerous. They also have argued that parents should not be allowed to force a decision on a young child.
"All human beings are equally protected under the Constitution from forced genital mutilation,” said Lloyd Schofield, a San Francisco resident and the measure’s lead proponent.
Currently, female genital cutting is illegal in the U.S., and Schofield argues that the same protections should be afforded to male children regardless of the parents’ religion.
Gatto says the bill, co-sponsored by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, was filed as an urgency statute, which means it could become law immediately if it is passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor.
The first state Senate committee hearing on the bill is expected on Aug. 15, when California’s Legislature reconvenes, Gatto said.
If the legislation fails to nullify the ban before it reaches the ballot, there are other hurdles that might derail the ordinance before voters have a chance to weigh in.
A coalition of Jews and Muslims filed a lawsuit last month to block the measure from the ballot, saying male circumcision is a procedure widely practiced by members of both faiths and that a ban would violate First Amendment rights. The suit also argues that state law bars local governments from restricting medical procedures, meaning the city cannot ban doctors from performing circumcisions.
In a response to the suit, San Francisco city attorney Dennis Herrera argued that the proposed law would indeed be unconstitutional if a judge accepted the plaintiffs’ reasoning and excluded only doctors from the ban.
International health groups have promoted male circumcision to help reduce the spread of the AIDS virus, but there hasn’t been the same kind of push in the U.S., in part because nearly 80 percent of American men are already circumcised, compared with the worldwide average of 30 percent.