Amid the intensifying U.S. debate about infant male circumcision, the concept of religious freedom has almost invariably been raised by those defending the practice as a necessary expression of their faith. But one Florida mom is now using her Christian religious beliefs as an argument against the procedure, in an attempt to prevent a court-mandated circumcision on her 4-year-old son.
Heather Hironimus filed a civil rights lawsuit late Monday in which she cited her child’s Christian faith as a defense of her decision to keep her son from being circumcised, in defiance of a state judge’s ruling. Hironimus, 30, has been in hiding with her son since last month after a Florida judge ordered her to bring the child to court and turn him over to his father, Dennis Nebus, who wants the child to undergo the procedure.
The parents had previously filed a court parenting agreement that stipulated that the child would be circumcised, leading to a long, drawn-out legal battle between the two of them after Hironimus changed her mind. Subsequent circuit and appellate judges have upheld the terms of that agreement, ordering Hironimus to allow the child to be circumcised despite her arguments that the child’s constitutional rights would be violated.
The circumcision dispute between the child’s parents did not start out as the product of religious differences. Nebus had previously said that his desire to have the procedure done on his son was motivated by the feeling that it was “just the normal thing to do.” Hironimus had expressed her objections in terms of her feelings around the child’s bodily autonomy and health.
However, she is now drawing on Christian tradition, with references to specific passages of the New Testament as well as Catholic teachings, to argue that the procedure would go against her child’s faith. “Under the circumstances of this case, imposing circumcision upon [the child] would interfere with his freedom to exercise his religion,” the suit filed by Heronimus stated. The filing then went on to cite a Catholic Catechism which explains that “except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the moral law.”
For many Christian parents in the U.S., circumcision is more a matter of personal preference than a religious issue. For other religious groups, most notably Jews and Muslims, circumcision is seen as a divine mandate, something that has raised concerns amid a growing, vocal “intactivist” movement against the practice. These activists have argued that it is unethical for parents to make the decision for their children and have characterized it as a human rights issue, while rallying to Hironimus’ cause.
Circumcision rates in the U.S. have fallen in recent years but the majority of newborn boys still undergo the procedure, with 77 percent having been circumcised in 2010, according to a 2014 report by the Mayo Clinic. The report cites data that found that the benefits of the procedure exceeded the risks by at least 100 to 1.