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The Freedom From Religion Foundation is calling for the curtailment of an extremely questionable ultra-Orthodox Jewish circumcision ritual routinely practiced in New York City.
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish parents are exposing their infants to herpes simplex virus infection by allowing adult men to place their mouths on open wounds on the children's penises. These parents are allowing adult men to cut off a part of their eight-day old son's penis, rip the skin off the penis with their fingernails, place their mouths on the penis, and suck the blood from the open wound.
Since FFRF last wrote to the city in February 2014 about this issue, there have been at least five additional cases of helpless infants being infected with a potentially deadly virus because of this practice. (The New York Post recently reported a new case of neonatal herpes transmitted to an infant through this ritual.) The de Blasio administration has failed even to enforce an inadequate agreement made two years ago, meant to identify the mohels (individuals performing the circumcisions) responsible for the transmissions. In fact, the state of New York has made it easier for these infections to spread by ending the sole safeguard, an informed consent requirement.
In at least two instances, this ritual has resulted in a newborn's death. Two other babies have suffered brain damage. Others deal with a chronic, lifelong infection that causes painful lesions. These neonatal herpes infections stem from "direct orogenital suction during ritual Jewish circumcision (also known as metzitzah b'peh)," as the New York Post describes. Neonatal herpes infections can lead to fatal encephalitis and other serious health complications.
"Adults do not have a religious right to expose their children to disease and death," FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel writes to Mayor Bill De Blasio and top New York City health officials. "Religion is not an excuse to infect an infant with a possibly fatal and definitely incurable disease."
No individual's religious rights would be burdened by prohibiting this act, FFRF points out. The free exercise of religion protected by our Constitution does not include the right to endanger the health and life of helpless infants. Current New York laws ban remarkably similar behavior: knowingly transmitting an infectious venereal disease, endangering the welfare of the child, and reckless endangerment. These laws should be enforced in all situations, regardless of whether the conduct was part of a religious ritual.
Banning this practice would serve a compelling governmental interest: protecting a child's right to life and health. This interest, set out in a neutral and generally applicable law, trumps the mohel's and parents' rights to endanger a helpless child. A law banning orogenital suction on a minor's penis could also be narrowly tailored, so as to make clear that the state does not seek to end the practice because it is religious, but because it is dangerous.
"Religion does not give people a free pass to contaminate children with deadly viruses," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "In fact, children deserve the most protection from such harmful rituals."
FFRF would like to know the steps New York City is taking to halt this entirely preventable menace to public health and to protect those who cannot protect themselves.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization working to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church. It represents 27,000 members across the country, including more than 1,400 in the state of New York.