On Wednesday, December 12th, the government of Germany approved a bill that explicitly permits male infant circumcision, ending months of legal uncertainty after a regional court decision in Cologne in June said that the practice represents grievous bodily harm.
The Cologne ruling was not tantamount to a legal ban but raised fears of possible future prosecutions and led to an outcry from Jewish and Muslim groups, who consider male circumcision as a Biblical mandate and a centuries-old religious ritual.
The June court ruling in Cologne centered on a case involving a 4-year-old boy whose Muslim parents had him circumcised by a doctor, which led to medical complications. The court found that the child’s “fundamental right to bodily integrity” was more important than the parents’ rights. According to the court, freedom of religion “would not be unduly impaired” because the child could later decide to have the circumcision.
The controversial ruling was interpreted by religious groups as having significant repercussions and as such, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Dieter Graumann, condemned the Cologne decision as “an unprecedented and dramatic intrusion on the self-determination of religious communities.”
Representing the Central Council, Graumann called on the Germany’s national Parliament, the Bundestag, to pass legislation protecting circumcision as a religious practice saying that a law should be enacted that would “create legal certainty and thereby protect religious freedom from attacks.” At the time, Graumann added that the Cologne decision was “outrageous and insensitive,” and said in a statement that circumcision had been practiced worldwide for thousands of years. “In every country in the world this religious right is respected,” he declared.
Drawing international reaction to the Cologne court’s decision in June, Abraham H. Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director in New York, said in a statement that the ruling “places an intolerable burden on the free exercise of religion by Jews and also by Muslims who practice male circumcision as part of their religious faith.” While the ruling did not appear to have specific anti-Semitic intent, Foxman said, “its effect is to say, ‘Jews are not welcome.’ ”
In response, Germany’s center-right government and opposition parties moved swiftly to draft a law following the Cologne decision and on Wednesday, after a two-hour debate, it passed the lower house of parliament with 434 lawmakers in favor, 100 against and 46 abstentions.
Expressing relief at the results of the vote, Graumann said, “the circumcision law finally restores legal certainty, What’s important for us is the political message of this law, which is that Jewish and Muslim life is still welcome here.”
Moshe Kantor, the president of the European Jewish Congress, praised the new law as “moral and just” and said he hoped the German example could serve as a model for other European countries that are debating the issue. “This vote and the strong commitment shown to protect this most integral practice of the Jewish religion is a strong message to our community for the continuation and flourishing of Jewish life in Germany,” he added. Germany’s Catholic Bishops Conference said it hoped the bill would help safeguard religious freedoms. No comment was immediately available from the country’s Central Council of Muslims.
In a statement released to the press, Deidre Berger, director of American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) Berlin Office, said, “The Bundestag action is a welcome affirmation of Germany’s commitment to religious freedom.”
Restrictions on religiously motivated circumcision have been particularly sensitive in Germany because of the country’s historical persecution of Jews and other minorities during World War II when the Nazi party ruled the country. Proponents of the law, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, noted that failure to protect circumcision would have risked making Germany the only country in the world to ban a practice that Jews and Muslims consider ancient and sacrosanct.
German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said no other country in the world country had made the religious circumcision of boys an offense.”In our modern and secular state, it is not the job of the state to interfere in children’s’ upbringing,” she said. Child welfare group Deutsche Kinderhilfe disagreed, saying the government had “pushed through the legalization of the ritual of genital circumcision, against the advice of child right campaigners and the medical profession.”
The new law grants parents the right to have their sons circumcised by a trained practitioner, such as a “Mohel” in Jewish tradition. The Central Council of Jews in Germany said it would start a training program to ensure that mohels receive proper medical training. The law requires that once the boy reaches six months of age, the procedure needs to be performed by a doctor. Another unsuccessful proposal would have allowed only doctors to perform the procedure, regardless of the subject’s age. Some opponents of circumcision in Germany have argued that the right of the child to bodily integrity trumped a parent’s right to make a decision on his behalf.
A minority of left-wing lawmakers in Parliament proposed that parents should have to wait until the boy is 14 so he can give informed consent, noting the procedure is irreversible. Such a delay, however, stands in direct contravention to Jewish religious law, which requires that boys are circumcised on the eighth day after birth in a ceremony seen as their entrance into a covenant with God.
Following the decision rendered in Cologne in June, Holm Putzke, a criminal law expert at the University of Passau, told the German news agency DPA that the ruling could send a welcome signal. “After the knee-jerk outrage has faded away, hopefully a discussion will begin about how much religiously motivated violence against children a society is ready to tolerate,” he said.
Germany, a country of some 82 million people, has a population of about 250,000 Jews and about four million Muslims.