In December, the Massachusetts legislature passed "An Act to Promote Breastfeeding," a law that essentially serves to protect a woman's right to nurse - and her child's right to feed - in public. This month, Governor Patrick signed the bill.
Many nursing rights activists, including me, have hailed the law as a step in the right direction. Legal protections of women's rights are critical to achieving equal rights. Without court decisions, Congressional bills, and legislative action, women in this country wouldn't have the right to vote, make reproductive choices, or breastfeed our children in public.
But, as with every "right" that is codified into law, some problems persist. Although the Act allows a woman to collect up to $500 in damages and the possibility of legal fees, I am not convinced that such a small penalty would keep a business owner from making a breastfeeding patron leave her/his establishment.
Even more problematic is the Act's exemption of religious institutions, which can refuse to comply with this law. So if a churchgoing Mama has the audacity to feed her hungry child in a church pew, Father O'Douchebag can toss her out without facing any legal ramifications. I wonder what Jesus would say about that . . .
Unfortunately in Massachusetts, churches and other religious organizations often get a free-pass to treat women like second-class citizens. In this state, employers which are religious institutions don't have to provide coverage for contraception. So if you happen to work as a bookkeeper in a synagogue, a janitor in a church, or even a healthcare professional in a church-owned hospital, your employer does not have to pay for prescriptions used for contraception and, since every contraceptive prescription on the market is consumed by women, employers essentially have the right to refuse to cover women's healthcare.
Beyond the religious exemption, passing a law to protect nursing makes me nervous for another reason. As with the passage of the National Labor Relations Act, which effectively replaced workers' direct actions with the oh-so-powerful tool of collective bargaining (check out the whopping 12% of American workers who are currently organized thanks to the NLRA), is this law going to mean that women in Massachusetts who are treated unfairly for breastfeeding will rely less on their own capacity to stand up and give a business-owner or passerby "what-for" and more on legal adjudication? I hope not.
Oh and if any of you ladies happens into a "place of religious instruction or worhip," I say whip them out and DARE someone to tell you to feed your baby elsewhere!