The debate in San Francisco about criminalizing male circumcision (Criminalizing Circumcision | Christianity Today) raises a good question about the nature of circumcision. In fact, it is the same question that might be asked about marriage. Are circumcision and marriage essentially religious rites or essentially secular practices? The answer is important because it determines who has the right to these rites.
While both rites have undeniably taken on secular dimensions (male circumcision for suggested health benefits and marriage for extending legal rights and benefits to a partner), if circumcision and marriage are by their nature religious rites then who has the right to change them? Should the state or a majority vote have the right to regulate how or to whom churches, synagogues, temples, or mosques might administer any religious rite, such as Baptism, Communion/The Lord's Supper, Ordination, Bar Mitzvah, etc.? Despite their secular trappings, by whom should circumcision and marriage, which have undeniable roots as religious rites, be regulated?
I wrestle with these questions while confessing two things. First, even if you believe homosexual behavior is immoral, justice, love for neighbor, and basic decency demand homosexual partners be offered some sort of basic legal rights and protections. There are many people who engage in behavior or lifestyles that would be considered immoral by others, but we do not withhold from them basic legal rights and protections. However if marriage is at its core a religious rite, does the state or a majority vote have the power to alter that essentially religious rite? Rather should some other secular provision be made (such as civil unions)?
Secondly, when discussing circumcision I am talking exclusively about male circumcision, not female circumcision. Male circumcision has a long religious history for the three world religions that trace their roots to Abraham (Genesis 17:10-14); it has never definitely been proven detrimental to male function, pleasure, or psychology; and many studies have demonstrated both its safety (rate of complications resulting from circumcision [between 0.2% and 0.6%] is lower than ear piercing [about 20% of baby girls suffer minor complications; about 3% major ones]) and suggested its possible benefit (including helping prevent HIV infection, lowering the risk of STD's, decreasing the risk of urinary tract infections, and helping prevent penile cancer - see: Ban Circumcision? Why not Ear Piercing?).
However, female circumcision has unquestionably been demonstrated harmful to female function, pleasure, and psychology; it has no demonstrable benefits (see what the World Health Organization has to say about it); and any religious connection is sketchy at best. Male and female circumcision are two completely different things. My arguments are only made on behalf of male circumcision.
So again I ask, if male circumcision is at its core a religious rite, does the state or a majority vote have the power to alter or prevent that rite?
Who has the right to religious rites?