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Of Circumcision and Prayer

  • Dr. James Emery White

    James Emery Whiteis the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he…

  • Published Jun 06, 2011

**UPDATE**Please click here for the latest court's ruling in the case referenced below.

Does it matter that San Francisco may ban circumcisions?

Or that a federal judge has prohibited prayer at a Texas graduation?

Yes.  And for more significant reasons than the media reports suggest.

First, the news.  In what has, until now, been a private family matter, a group seeking to ban the circumcision of male children in San Francisco has succeeded in getting their measure on the November ballot.  If the measure passes, circumcision would be prohibited among males under the age of 18, a misdemeanor offense punishable by a fine up to $1,000 or up to one year in jail.  There would be no religious exemptions.  The end goal of the measure’s supporters is to make circumcision a federal crime.

Now to Texas.  A federal judge has ordered a Texas school district to prohibit public prayer at a high school graduation ceremony.  The judge’s order also forbids students from using specific religious words such as “prayer” and “amen.”  Going further, the judge banned students and other speakers from any and all religious language in their speeches, including such words or phrases as “join in prayer,” “bow their heads,” “amen,” and “prayer.”  He also ordered the school district to remove the terms “invocation” and “benediction” from the graduation program.

The ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed by the parents of a single graduating student.  The judge agreed with its tenets, and declared that the family and the son would “suffer irreparable harm” if anyone ended up praying at the ceremony.

No one would deny the rights of a group of people to put a measure on a ballot for consideration by the wider population.  No one would deny the right of a family to file a suit against a public school district about an educational matter involving their child.

But is that what is at hand in these cases?


Consider the ban on circumcision.  Supporters say that male circumcision is a form of genital mutilation that is unnecessary, extremely painful and even dangerous.  They say parents should not be able to force the decision on their young child.  “Parents are really guardians, and guardians have to do what’s in the best interest of the child,” say Lloyd Schofield, the measure’s lead proponent.  “It’s his body.  It’s his choice.”

Opponents say such claims are alarmingly misleading, and call the proposal a clear violation of constitutionally protected religious freedoms.  Not only is circumcision widely practiced (80% of American men are already circumcised), but medical groups uniformly say that the practice is not harmful.  Further, international health organizations have promoted circumcision as an important strategy for reducing the spread of the AIDS virus, based on studies that showed it can prevents AIDS among heterosexual men in Africa.

But let’s get back to the religious dimension.  The circumcision of males is a requirement of Jewish law that dates back to Abraham in Genesis.  To ban it would be a direct assault on Jewish practice (Muslim practice too, for that matter).  Further, the writer of the bill, Matthew Hess, writes an online comic book titled “Foreskin Man” with villains like “Monster Mohel” (a “Mohel” is a Jewish person who performs ritual circumcision).  The Anti-Defamation League has already issued a statement saying the comic employs “grotesque anti-Semitic imagery.”

And the ban on prayer?  We can have honest debates about whether this is a needed step to prevent the promotion of a specific religion, or whether it’s unfairly keeping religion out of the public square.  But the ruling did not seem to be overly concerned about any one religion’s unique tenets being unduly imposed on impressionable minds.  It seemed most concerned with airbrushing away any and all things religious, even preventing someone’s speech from referencing their personal convictions. 

And most disturbing of all, like the circumcision case, the argument seems to be promoting the harmful nature of what has been a mainstream religious practice.  Take note again of the judge’s ruling:  prayer would cause the graduating senior to suffer “irreparable harm.” 

Prayer?  Irreparable harm?  

This is precisely the argument being made by the new pop-atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.  No matter where you stand on the role of religion in the founding of our country, to say that the First Amendment was penned as a necessary protective measure against the corrosive influence of young Valedictorians tipping their hat to a Creator is revisionist history at its worst. 

Circumcision and prayer are two of the most ancient, and foundational, religious practices of the world’s great monotheistic religions.  If these are successfully legislated against in the name of their “harm” to individuals or society, then we have truly entered into a new day of aggressive secularism where the goal is not the protection of religious freedom, but its removal.

This is not about circumcision; it’s not about prayer at graduations. 

It’s about the increasingly aggressive attempt to purge faith from the public, and even private, spheres of life.

James Emery White


Jennifer Medina, “Efforts to Ban Circumcision Gain Traction in California,” The New York Times, June 4, 2011. Read online.

Associated Press, “Circumcision Ban to Appear on San Francisco Ballot,” Wall Street Journal, May 16, 2011. Read online.

Todd Stames, “Federal Judge Prohibits Prayer at Texas Graduation Ceremony,” Fox News, June 2, 2011. Read online.

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