While lawyers defending the practice of female genital mutilation claim that it is protected by religious freedom rights, one leading religious liberty advocate insists that it must be condemned as a human rights violation. “Religious freedom does not protect harmful practices, and in particular religious freedom never, ever protects harming children. Never,” Kristina Arriaga, a commissioner at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, told CNA of the practice of female genital mutilation.

Defined by the World Health Organization as the alteration, removal or cutting of female genital organs “for non-medical reasons,” the practice of female genital mutilation is illegal in the United States, and has been since 1997. Since then, traveling to other countries to undergo the practice, known as “vacation cutting,” has also been criminalized.

The procedure does not have health benefits, it can cause lasting bodily injury, and it is a human rights violation, according to the World Health Organization, and more than 200 million women have been mutilated in 30 countries across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. It is still administered in many immigrant communities as a “rite of passage” for women, and has been understood in the past to discourage illicit sexual behavior. Or, it has been sought out as an “economic issue” to ensure girls will have a husband when they grow older, Arriaga said.

Nevertheless, in the United States, an estimated 500,000 girls under the age of 13 have had the cutting procedure or are at risk of receiving it. Many are not even aware of the procedure or how widespread it is, Arriaga told CNA. Since 1997, “only one single case has been brought forward,” she said. “Officers look the other way.”

Contrary to the belief of many, it is not only Muslim communities practicing cutting, Arriaga said, but Christian communities as well. In fact, in certain countries like Egypt, Ethiopia, and Tanzania, Christian communities have higher rates of cutting than other communities do, she said. Some of these Christian communities in the U.S. practice female genital mutilation as a “perception of purity,” Arriaga said, to deter illicit sexual behavior by young girls. But the practice is not required by any religious text — instead it is an ancient cultural custom that has been made into a “false” religious practice, she said.

“These communities have confused a cultural interpretation in giving it a theological explanation.” She also clarified that there is a vast difference between male circumcision — which is often performed for hygienic reasons — and female genital mutilation.

“Male circumcision causes no harm. Female genital mutilation is not a form of circumcision,” she said, but is rather an extremely painful procedure that “causes serious health and psychological harm.”

Many religious leaders, including Pope Francis, have spoken out against mutilation, she added. In 2015, at an assembly hosted by the Pontifical Council for Culture, Pope Francis said that the “many forms of slavery, of commodification, of mutilation of women’s bodies oblige us therefore to work to defeat this form of degradation.”

The U.S. State Department stated several times last year its intent to fight the practice of female genital mutilation. In July 2016, at the 32nd session of the U.S. Human Rights Council, the U.S. “cosponsored resolutions” that supported “the elimination of female genital mutilation,” the State Department announced. “Just because this is a tradition in some places does not make it right. This practice is harmful, and therefore wrong wherever it occurs,” President Barack Obama stated on Feb. 5, 2016, in his remarks on the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting.

Yet a case in Michigan has brought the practice into the national spotlight, as attorneys for the parents and doctors who performed the procedure on children argue that it is a religious practice and should be protected under freedom of religion. Three people were charged earlier this year by the U.S. attorney’s office for a federal district in Michigan with performing female genital mutilation on minors, as well as “conspiracy to obstruct the federal investigation.”

Jumana Nagarwala, M.D., Fakhruddin Attar, M.D., and his wife Farida Attar were all charged with performing the practice out of Attar’s medical office in Livonia, Mich., in an Indian-Muslim sect — Dawoodi Bohra — in suburban Detroit. Lawyers for the accused claim that the practice should be protected under freedom of religion. However, no human rights violation against children should be protected under freedom of religion, Arriaga said, including female genital mutilation. “This is a grave violation of human rights,” she said, and a “form of child abuse that no one should have to endure.”

The World Health Organization says the practice “can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths.” One woman who underwent the procedure with other young girls recalled in Mother Jones magazine that “we were cut. Some of us bled and ached for days, and some walked away with lifelong physical damage.”

To defend the practice under freedom of religion would endanger the cause of religious freedom, Arriaga said. “Conservatives and liberals alike must unite to make sure that the Michigan case does not taint the concept of religious freedom, because if it does, everyone in the United States loses regardless of their religious or political persuasion,” she said.

In 2016, the chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a statement saying that religious liberty and religious freedom were being used as “code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance.” “This generation of Americans must stand up and speak out to ensure that religion never again be twisted to deny others the full promise of America,” then-chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Martin R. Castro stated.

Although the statement was sharply criticized by religious freedom advocates including Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, Arriaga said that defending human rights violations like female genital mutilation under the cause of religious freedom would ultimately give fuel to such sentiments.

“People who care about religious freedom must make sure that religious freedom is never a code for harming children, that it’s never a code for discrimination, that it’s never a code for bigotry,” she said. Religious leaders and communities must also speak up for the rights of women, she said. “Every single state should pass laws criminalizing female genital mutilation, and every community must find leaders in their community that can speak frankly, openly, and in the same language to families who are doing this to these girls,” she said.

Michigan has recently passed a law increasing the punishment for the practice to up to 15 years in prison. “These girls deserve our protection. These girls do not deserve to be harmed,” Arriaga said.