An Important Unanimous Vote

Debate over whether bris milah should be legal has taken place in a number of Western European countries over recent years. Calls have increased in some European countries for an end to milah and shechitah, spurred at least in part by anti-Muslim hostility.

In 2012, a court in the German city of Cologne contended that bris milah constitutes “grievous bodily harm,” and that it should be banned. The ruling sparked a three-month-long row, and although the German cabinet eventually approved a bill permitting bris milah, it did so only on the condition that parents receive information about its nature and that painkillers are used.

The following year, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a resolution in which it states it is “particularly worried about a category of violation of the physical integrity of children,” including “circumcision of young boys for religious reasons.”

In Denmark, a poll last year showed that 74% of Danes are in favor of banning bris milah, and members of the ruling Venstre party have expressed support for banning the practice. Professor Morten Frisch, an epidemiology researcher at the University of Copenhagen, has asserted that it is irresponsible to put a child through “a medical procedure” for the sake of tradition.

And in England, a judge recently ruled against a Muslim father who wanted to circumcise his son against his ex-wife’s wishes. Although the ruling was the result of the lack of full parental consent, there remains considerable anti-milah sentiment in the United Kingdom. A 2013 poll there yielded the fact that 38% of Britons favor a circumcision ban.

There has been opposition to bris milah not only in Europe but here in the U.S. as well. Numerous boisterous public protests against milah took place this year alone in multiple cities in California and Texas; and in Delaware, Arkansas, Louisiana, Virginia, Maryland and New York as well.

All of which makes what happened in Washington last week so important.

That would be the U.S. House of Representatives’ unanimous approval of a bill that would extend religious protections to advocates of milah and shechitah.

The bill was designed to broaden the definition of “violations of religious freedom” in the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to include the persecution of advocates of either ritual practice, integrating that law’s protections into U.S. national security priorities. It would mandate that the ambassador at large for religious freedom, an already-existent post, report on such persecution directly to the secretary of state. It also adds new requirements for presidential reporting to Congress on religious freedom violations, and training for diplomats in identifying violations of religious freedoms.

Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ), the author of the bill, cited the “unprecedented crisis of international religious freedom” in the world as requiring the move.

The measure, which now moves to the Senate for consideration, was named for retired Representative Frank Wolf (R-Va), a longtime champion of human rights, who authored the 1998 law.

The bill would institute a tier system for countries around the world, similar to the State Department’s current one monitoring human trafficking, looking for curbs that have been placed on milah and shechitah. Reports issued by the State Department can help put pressure on countries seeking the good graces of the United States to crack down on violations.

As reported in this paper last week, Rabbi Abba Cohen, vice president for Federal Affairs and Washington Bureau director, said: “Nobody wants to be seen as being in violation of religious freedom or subject to sanctions.” He also added that last year Congress voted to add desecration of cemeteries to the same list of violations, a move that has been helpful in changing planned development in several foreign countries.

Senator and former presidential candidate Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) has introduced a companion bill in the Senate, but it has not yet been scheduled for a committee hearing. In light of its unanimous House passage, opposition to its advancement is not expected.

We are fortunate to live in a country that, even as it is constitutionally mandated to maintain a barrier between matters of religion and state, nevertheless maintains a strong determination to protect religious practices. That is not something to be taken for granted.

And with, b’ezras Hashem, the Senate’s ratification of the amendment to the Religious Freedom Act and the president’s signature, the considerable weight of the United States will be brought to bear on other countries that may, for one or another reason, have a less accommodating attitude toward religious practice.

That rightly earns our hakaras hatov.