(CBS News) Religious leaders are outraged after a German court ruled that circumcision infringes on a child's right to be protected from bodily harm.
The regional court in Cologne said that circumcision went against the "fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents." They added that religious freedom would not be curtailed because the child would be able to choose later whether he wanted to have a circumcision. However, if the parents decided for the boy, it changed the body of the child "irreparably and permanently" and went against that child's rights to choose his religious beliefs.
"The religious freedom of the parents and their right to educate their child would not be unacceptably compromised, if they were obliged to wait until the child could himself decide to be circumcised," the court added.
The ruling has now set a precedent that anyone in the future who performs a circumcision on a child not old enough to consent could potentially be breaking the law. Experts say that the decision would not be enforceable in other jurisdictions but because of the legal limbo and possibility of charges brought upon them, doctors may decline to do the procedure, according to the New York Times.
The head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Dr. Dieter Graumann, said in a statement that the ruling was an "unprecedented and dramatic interference in the right of religious communities to self-determination," calling it an "inappropriate and insensitive act."
Graumann said that circumcision by a medical doctor or a mohel with "medical competency" is "an integral part of the Jewish faith that has been practiced around the world for millennium."
"This right is respected in every country of the world," he added.
Male circumcision is an integral part of both Jewish and Muslim religions, and is also practiced by some tribal groups. It is very common in many African countries, and is often done in North America and most of West Africa. Although female circumcision is outlawed in Germany, male circumcision had been completely legal.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 30 percent of men - 665 million men - were circumcised as of 2006. In the United States, the WHO estimates about 76 percent to 92 percent of men are circumcised today.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend routine circumcision, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), but defers to parental choice based on religious, cultural and personal beliefs. The WHO says that circumcision can lower HIV infection risk by about 60 percent. Circumcision can lower risk of urinary tract infections, penile cancer and sexually transmitted diseases, according to the NIH, but can cause unwarranted pain and a low risk of bleeding or infection.
The case was brought to the German court system after a four-year-old Muslim boy in Cologne was rushed to the hospital when he was found to be bleeding heavily a few days after a doctor had performed a circumcision under the boy's parent's request. The doctor was charged with grievous bodily harm.
The doctor was both acquitted by a lower court that determined that he was legally right to perform the circumcision because he had parental consent and cited religious freedom. The ruling was appealed, and although the regional court also acquitted the doctor of any wrongdoing, it was the court's reasoning that caused controversy in the religious community.
Holm Putzke, a professor of criminal law at the University of Passau in Germany, told JTA that he hoped the decision would inspire conversation about "what should be given more weight - religious freedom or the right of children not to have their genitals mutilated." Putzke has crusaded for anti-circumcision laws for children for many years.
"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 to German news agency DPA according to the New York Times.