Why the Circumcision Judgment looks so weird to American Eyes

By ANDREW HAMMEL

The Cologne Landgericht decision proclaiming religious circumcision to be a form of illegal assault will apparently soon be superseded by legislation permitting the practice under certain conditions. Nevertheless, the mere fact that the decision came about – coupled with its endorsement by many members of the German criminal-law community and the fact that approximately half of Germans want to see religious circumcision punished by law – points at a continuing controversy. Circumcision also presents an interesting cross-cultural case study, since it is not expressly regulated in either the United States or (yet) in Germany. An enlightening 2002 analysis by Geoffrey P. Miller shows that all U.S. published U.S. court cases about male circumcision involve botched operations or problems with obtaining parents’ consent. It appears that no U.S. court has yet addressed a situation in which a doctor has been criminally prosecuted for competently performing a circumcision with the consent of the child’s guardians.

Even were such a case to emerge, it’s difficult to imagine a similar outcome. Following the First Amendment’s explicit ban on ‘established’ churches, the Supreme Court has limited government interference in private religious rituals. A line of Supreme Court cases has called for the government to display a ‘wholesome neutrality’ toward all religions, and to avoid unnecessary ‘entanglement’ of church and state. Accordingly, the Supreme Court has forbade American government entities from pronouncing on internal church administration, drawing government administrative boundaries to accommodate religious sects, or banning controversial religious practices under the pretext of public safety. This basic suspicion of intermingling secular administration and religion is widespread among legal officials ...

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