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Oregon Court Hears Circumcision Dispute

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Oregon Court Hears Circumcision Dispute

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Oregon Court Hears Circumcision Dispute

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX COHEN, host:

I'm Alex Cohen.

In this country, three of every five boys get circumcised, many for religious reasons. One father in Oregon who converted to Judaism is trying to have this son circumcised, but the boy is 12 years old and his mother objects. Today, Oregon's Supreme Court hears arguments about the case.

Colin Fogarty of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports.

COLIN FOGARTY: Circumcision goes way back in Judaism.

Rabbi DANIEL ISAAK (Congregation Nevah Shalom): It is the oldest Jewish custom that we're aware of.

FOGARTY: Rabbi Daniel Isaak leads Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland.

Rabbi ISAAK: At various points in Jewish history there had been tyrants who tried to separate Jews from Judaism. One of the first things they did was to outlaw circumcision.

FOGARTY: Isaak says that's why he and other rabbis are paying close attention to a custody dispute before the Oregon Supreme Court. Here are the basic facts. James Boldt and his wife Lia Boldt have a 12-year-old son. James Boldt, who has full custody of the boy, converted to Judaism in 2004 and he wants his son to be Jewish too, and believes the boy needs to be circumcised.

But the boy's mother is Russian Orthodox, and she objects strenuously. Rabbi Isaak, who supports the father's side, says not all Jews agree, but he believes under Jewish tradition the faith is passed from mother to child. So Isaak says if the boy's mother was Jewish, it wouldn't matter if he was circumcised or not.

Rabbi ISAAK: But a child whose parents when the child was born was not Jewish, then the circumcision becomes one of the steps in the conversion process.

FOGARTY: A process Lia Boldt is fighting with the help of the Seattle-based group Doctors Opposing Circumcision.

John Geisheker, the group's director, says circumcision at any age is medically unnecessary and cruel.

Mr. JOHN GEISHEKER (Doctors Opposing Circumcision): It's too horrific. The benefit isn't fair. And plus, it changes the mechanics of sexual intercourse, a fact of life that he is entitled to when he's an adult.

FOGARTY: Geisheker says like all procedures, circumcision comes with medical risks, and that's why he goes on to argue that the father in this case has no right to circumcise his 12-year-old boy and is violating his son's civil rights.

Mr. GEISHEKER: See, we don't view this as a dispute between the parents. We view it as a case about the rights of a child to be free from any kind of imaginary cultural surgeries inflicted by the parents for whatever reason, however spiritually and deeply held.

FOGARTY: And that's what's got Jewish advocacy groups nervous about this case.

Marc Stern with the American Jewish Congress says denying James Boldt the right to circumcise his son would violate his religious freedom. Stern says because this is the first appeals court to decide this issue, the precedent it would set could kick off a spate of lawsuits over circumcision across the country.

Mr. MARC STERN (American Jewish Congress): The worse case scenario is that the Oregon Supreme Court says this inflicts a permanent change on the body of the child, it's therefore beyond the ken of any parent - divorced or not - to consent to such a procedure. And if we lose, it's a sure thing that there will be other lawsuits in other states.

FOGARTY: But University of Oregon constitutional law professor Garrett Epps believes the Oregon Supreme Court will base its decision more on family law than deeper constitutional issues, and he doesn't think the case will go beyond the state border.

Professor GARRETT EPPS (University of Oregon): You know, it's going to be decided by the Oregon Supreme Court. The only appeal from there would be the United States Supreme Court. I don't see the Supreme Court getting involved in this, so to the extent that any kind of precedent would be set, it would be in the state only.

FOGARTY: And anyway, Epps says, this court would hesitate to get into battles over religion and custody disputes. No matter what the legal precedent, Rabbi Daniel Isaak says he is more concerned about the boy at the center of this case.

James and Lia Boldt declined to be interviewed, but in court briefs James Boldt said his son wants a circumcision. However, the mother said the son told her he didn't want the procedure; he's just afraid of contradicting his father.

Rabbi Isaak wishes the couple could just work out a compromise.

Rabbi ISAAK: It's difficult when your parents are divorced; they're probably arguing not just about this but about everything. But I would be hesitant for Judaism to become yet another issue between the parents.

FOGARTY: Circumcision opponents are asking the Oregon Supreme Court to look to a trial court case last year in Chicago. A divorced mother wanted her son circumcised, but the father did not. The judge in that case did not rule on the religious issues. Instead he blocked the circumcision until the boy turned 18 and could decide for himself.

For NPR News, I'm Colin Fogarty in Portland.

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