Activists who want to ban male circumcision in San Francisco have taken a step toward putting the issue to a popular vote, sparking outcry from Jewish and Muslim groups.
A coalition of "intactivists" submitted 12,000 signatures to Californian city's authorities this week in support of a ballot measure which would criminalize circumcision of males under 18 years old.
The city's Elections Division now has a month to verify that at least 7,000 of the signatures came from registered city voters. If so, the issue will appear on a November ballot.
A growing community of anti-circumcision activists say that the procedure can cause health risks and diminished sexual function, and should be a matter of individual, not parental, choice.
Lloyd Schofield, 59, who been at the helm of the San Francisco effort, says that infants should not be forced to participate in what is essentially culturally accepted genital mutilation.
"Parents are guardians - they're not supposed to harm their children," he said. "Circumcision is harmful and very, very painful."
Jewish organizations have pledged to campaign against the measure, should it be placed on the ballot.
Anti-Defamation League director Daniel Sandman called Schofield's effort discriminatory and misguided, and noted that circumcision is a central religious obligation for Jews.
"Circumcision has been practiced safely for thousands of years," Sandman said.
"We're currently reaching out to form a broad coalition of people who feel this is an attack directed at religion, parental rights and privacy rights," he added.
Circumcision is also a common rite among Muslims. Council on American-Islamic Relations spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said his group would join with Jews to protect their religious freedoms.
"I think this ban is a solution in search of a problem," he said. "I don't see it even as an issue to be addressed."
Opponents say the ban would never hold up in court because it violates the freedom of religion clause of the US constitution.
Both pro- and anti-circumcision advocates make health claims, but the medical research does not firmly support either position.
If the ban passes, those caught cutting foreskins in San Francisco would face a fine of $1,000 and a year in prison. Only people over 18 could have their foreskins removed, though exceptions might be made for health reasons.
The anti-circumcision group, which spent $8,000 on professional signature gatherers, plans to step-up outreach in Asian and Latino neighborhoods in anticipation of the fall election.
If nothing else, Schofield said, the campaign has sparked an important national conversation.
"This has been a taboo subject even to bring up," he said. "This is a discussion that has been repressed."
California's unique voter initiative system allows residents to place virtually anything on the ballot so long as they secure the requisite signatures.
Many of California's most controversial and restrictive policies have been passed this way, among them a drastic reduction in property taxes and a ban on gay marriage.