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In San Francisco, a measure on this fall's ballot is sparking strong opinions about both religion and medicine. City voters will have a chance to approve the first U.S. ban on male circumcision.

As Rachael Myrow reports from member station KQED, the ballot measure would make it a misdemeanor.

(Soundbite of baby crying)

RACHEL MYROW: Youll have to forgive one of San Franciscos newest residents. Hes a little bit fussy right after his nap, but Shay Buskirks parents Ned and Sara couldnt be happier with their eight-week-old baby boy.

Ms. SARA BUSKIRK: He was born here at home, right over there on the rug.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MYROW: There were no complications and no questions about a circumcision. Sara and Ned both knew they didnt want one for Shay.

Mr. NED BUSKIRK: For me, it came down to: Is there enough information pointing to me needing to physically hurt or mutilate my child? Is that something that I need to do?

MYROW: They wouldnt presume to choose for other parents, but Lloyd Schofield would. He represents a loose coalition of people who call themselves intactivists.

Mr. LLOYD SCHOFIELD: Its not necessary to do, and if someone wants to have themselves circumcised when theyre 18, thats their choice to make for whatever reason.

MYROW: If the referendum is enacted, anybody caught circumcising a boy could face $1,000 fine or a year in jail. It includes an exemption for cases of medical necessity but not religion.

For that reason alone, First Amendment attorney Martin Nussbaum doesnt believe the ban could hold up in court. Nussbaum says a court would have to balance the interest of the state in protecting the individual against the free exercise of religion.

Mr. MARTIN NUSSBAUM (Attorney): The court would assess whether the governments interest is compelling, and by that, I mean of the highest order. And its almost unthinkable banning it could be a government interest of the highest order.

MYROW: The San Francisco measure was written by a San Diego man, Matthew Hess, whos been pushing for a national ban for a decade. The success so far of the San Francisco measure has shined a spotlight on his comic book series, "Foreskin Man," which depicts monstrous doctors and Orthodox Jewish circumcisers.

Hess declined our request for an interview, but on Twitter, hes defended his work from critics, writing, quote, "those who cut innocent children will be drawn like the villains that they are."

Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz, of Congregation Adath Israel, says circumcision is central to the Jewish faith. He finds the measure dangerous as a Jew but also as a San Franciscan.

Rabbi JOSHUA STRULOWITZ (Congregation Adath Israel): It threatens a liberal society. Its so dictatorial. Its so over the top. Limiting choice like this would be damaging to the very values that San Francisco wants to represent.

MYROW: Some public health advocates have also expressed concern. Studies conducted in Africa indicate circumcision can lessen the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, particularly HIV/AIDS.

So far, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has yet to issue formal guidance on the practice. For those who see circumcision as mutilation, anything less than opposition can be construed as support.

But thats not how UC San Francisco Pediatrics Professor Carol Ann Miller sees it.

Professor CAROL ANN MILLER (Pediatrics, University of California San Francisco): The data that we have available from science really is not compelling enough to strongly recommend for or against circumcision. There are certainly benefits that have been demonstrated, and there are risks, although the risks are minimal.

MYROW: Intactivists were pushing for a similar ban in Santa Monica, but the media firestorm that erupted around the San Francisco measure prompted the Southern California proponent to withdraw the bid.

For NPR News, Im Rachael Myrow in San Francisco.

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