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Fight over Ocean City’s ban on bare breasts goes to federal court

Families visit the beach in Ocean City, on Aug. 30.
Families visit the beach in Ocean City, on Aug. 30. (Michael S. Williamson)

A woman who had been fighting for the right to go bare-chested on Ocean City beaches has taken her case to federal court, filing a complaint this week against the Maryland resort destination's recent ban on public nudity.

The lawsuit argues women have the legal right to go shirtless in public for purposes other than breast-feeding and that the city's new ordinance prohibiting bare female chests violates equal protection laws.

The complaint filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Maryland escalates the battle between city officials — who say they want to maintain a family-friendly atmosphere at the popular vacation spot — and "topfreedom" advocate Chelsea Eline — who says such bans are discriminatory and sexist.

Ocean City officials passed an "emergency ordinance" in June that prevents women from displaying their bare chests in public but allows men to do so. Less than a week later, the Maryland Attorney General's Office advised that the city's law was legally sound.

"Protecting the public sensibilities is an important governmental interest based on an indisputable difference between the sexes," according to the ordinance Ocean City lawmakers passed in June. The ordinance notes that while not everyone is offended by the sight of female breasts in public, it "is still seen by society as unpalatable."

Ocean City acts to keep women from going topless at beach

But Eline, a beachgoer who in the past had gone by the name Chelsea Covington, disagrees.

"The gender classification does not further an important government interest, but rather codifies long-standing discriminatory and sexist ideology in which women are viewed as inherently sexual objects without the agency to decide when they are sexual and when they are not," according to the federal complaint filed by attorneys representing Eline and four other women.

Eline had long asked Ocean City officials to provide police and the beach patrol more clarity on the matter so women could sunbathe topless without being hassled. But the issue reached a boiling point in May when the beach patrol issued a memo directing staff to document complaints about bare-chested female sunbathers by filling out "minor incident" forms. The memo also instructed the beach patrol not to "approach the topless woman, even if requested to do so by the complainant or other beach patrons."

The debate over bare breasts in public is not limited to Ocean City.

Maryland’s top lawyer says it’s ok to make bare breasted women cover up in public

A federal appeals court in Colorado heard oral arguments this week in a similar case in which the city of Fort Collins is challenging a lower-court ruling that blocked officials from enforcing their ordinance that prohibits women, but not men, from exposing their chests in public. A lower-court judge said the city ordinance violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment that generally prohibits the government from discriminating between the sexes. The initial lawsuit against the city was filed by a gender-equity advocacy group, Free the Nipple.

An opinion in the Fort Collins case is pending.

Devon M. Jacob, an attorney representing the five women who filed the suit, said he hopes the court "follows the law" and determines Ocean City's ban is unconstitutional.

"Chelsea and the other women have decided that because the town of Ocean City has refused to comply with federal law that it's time for a federal court to make them do so," Jacob said. "They're women and they want to be treated equally."

Ocean City officials have yet to file a response to the federal court complaint. But in a statement released Thursday afternoon, Mayor Rick Meehan said the town will "pursue all available legal options" to fight the lawsuit and that there is no constitutional right to public nudity.

"The Mayor and City Council firmly believe that Ocean City must continue to be a family resort that does not permit women to be topless on our beaches or in other public areas," Meehan said.

Ann E. Marimow contributed to this report.

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