Judges ruling strikes circumcision ban from San Francisco ballot

A San Francisco Superior Court judge Thursday ordered that an initiative that would ban circumcisions for anyone under 18 in San Francisco be removed from the November ballot.

The July 28 ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed last month, which argued that state law bars municipalities from banning legitimate medical practices. The announcement confirmed a tentative decision Judge Loretta Giorgi had issued a day earlier, and followed arguments from proponents of the ban, including Lloyd Schofield, the anti-circumcision activist spearheading the initiative.

Michael Kinane, an attorney for the proponents, told Giorgi circumcision was not a medical procedure. He also said the ballot measure included an exception in cases where circumcision was needed for health reasons.

Judge Giorgi was not convinced. In her ruling, she wrote, “The Court finds that the proposed ballot initiative is expressly pre-empted” by state law, adding, “The evidence presented is overwhelmingly persuasive that circumcision is a widely practiced medical procedure.”

The ruling concluded: “Because the proposed ballot initiative attempts to regulate a medical procedure, the proposed ordinance is expressly preempted. Moreover, 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.”

Abby Michelson Porth

Abby Michelson Porth, the associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council — one of several plaintiffs in the suit — was delighted by the ruling.

“We appreciate Judge Giorgi’s careful review of the proposed measure, and her willingness to put a stop to this extreme, hurtful measure,” Porth said shortly after the July 27 ruling. “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.”

The initiative, if passed, would have made the practice of circumcision a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1000, or up to one year in jail, and offered no exemption for religious ritual.

Porth added that she expected proponents of the measure to file an appeal, and that the Superior Court ruling would not automatically remove the measure from the ballot.

The San Francisco Director of Elections and Schofield were named as defendants in the suit.

It was filed by plaintiffs representing community organizations, doctors and Jewish and Muslim families in San Francisco. The litigants are: the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Anti-Defamation League, Leo Fuchs, Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe and Yael Frenkel-Jaffe, Jeremy and Jennifer Benjamin, Dr. Eric Tabas, Dr. Brian McBeth, Sheila Bari, Leticia Preza and Kashif Abdullah.

They were supported in their efforts with Amicus briefs by the American Civil Liberties Union and San Francisco’s Medical Society. In addition, the San Francisco City Attorney’s office took the rare step of expressing their concerns about the constitutional legality of the issue in a separate brief.

The existing statute cited by Judge Giorgi expressly denies municipalities the power to “prohibit a healing arts professional licensed with the state … from engaging in any act or performing any procedure that falls within the professionally recognized scope of practice of that license.”

Jewish leaders were quick to praise the 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.

Daniel Mariaschin, the executive vice president for 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 author of the bill, told JTA that proponents of the measure were working out the details of an appeal. He strongly rejected the notion that circumcision was a medical procedure.

“And 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.”

Both Jews and Muslims circumcise males as part of their faith.

Beigelman said in his statement, “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.”

The anti-circumcision movement, after gathering 12,000 signatures in May to put the law on the ballot, has hit rocky waters of late. The discovery that Hess also was the author of a comic book that traded in what the Anti-Defamation League described as “grotesque anti-Semitic imagery and themes” led to the withdrawal of a similar initiative in Santa Monica, in Southern California.


JTA contributed to this report.



Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.