The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island is suing a local YMCA on behalf of a former yoga teacher, saying the association violated her right to breast-feed her daughter in public by asking her to move away from the child-care center so that “young boys” would not see her.
The case against the Ocean Community YMCA of Westerly, R.I., represents one of a string of incidents at YMCAs across the country in recent years that have drawn scrutiny from breast-feeding advocates.
Elizabeth Gooding, the plaintiff in the Rhode Island case, said she is concerned there is a broader issue at YMCAs.
“If a mother cannot feed her baby in the day care of a family establishment, where can she nurse?” Gooding, who had been employed by the Y, said in an open letter she planned to post on Facebook on Wednesday. She said she hopes her case sets a precedent, and she called on women to gather at their local YMCAs for a “nurse-in” on June 11.
“The YMCA should be supporting breastfeeding moms and their babies, not deterring them,” she wrote.
Other women who encountered challenges while breast-feeding at YMCAs in recent years have attracted headlines, including a mother at a YMCA in Oklahoma City who said she was asked to leave a women’s locker room to nurse her 8-week-old; a mother at the Two Rivers YMCA in Iowa who said she was told she could not nurse by the pool during a “family swim”; and a Las Vegas mother who said she was told she could not breast-feed by the pool, prompting dozens of women to protest with an organized “nurse-in” at the Centennial Hills YMCA.
Brad McDermott, a representative of the YMCA of the USA, said the nation’s 2,700 YMCAs employ 250,000 employees, all but 20,000 of whom work part time or seasonally. He said incidents often occur as a result of young or part-time staffers who are not aware of their state’s policies or “simply not exposed to breast-feeding on a regular basis.”
McDermott said the national organization recommends that all the independently operated YMCAs comply with state breast-feeding laws and that member YMCAs understand the need for ongoing training. The national organization provides online resources to educate about the benefits of breast-feeding, he said.
“Breast-feeding is something we actively encourage of mothers and families who are members of the YMCA, and something we support in accordance with the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics,” he said.
Every state except Idaho has a statute that protects a woman’s ability to breast-feed in public places. Rhode Island is one of a minority of states that also has an enforcement clause, which means that a plaintiff can win compensatory damages.
According to the complaint filed in Washington County Superior Court, Gooding was twice asked to move while breast-feeding her 1-year-old daughter in the day care of the YMCA.
She appealed to supervisors of the day care and was told she could not breast-feed in any public area because of concerns that “young boys” could see her, the complaint said.
In the first incident, Gooding said, she was told she could not breast-feed in the child-care area. In the second incident, she was asked to move to a gated area in the corner of the room.
“I was not putting myself on display. I was minding my own business,” Gooding said in an interview.
Gooding met with the local YMCA’s president and chief executive, Maureen Fitzgerald, who told her to be more “discreet,” the complaint said.
The incidents occurred in 2015. Later that year, Gooding was told she could no longer bring her baby to the mother-and-baby yoga class she taught, the complaint said. She stopped working there not long after that.
“The statute is quite clear and, on the face of it, the YMCA does not follow state law,” said H. Jefferson Melish, the volunteer attorney for the Rhode Island ACLU representing Gooding.
The lawsuit also alleges that the YMCA’s actions violate the state’s Civil Rights Act and constitute a form of gender discrimination.
The Ocean Community YMCA did not issue a statement to The Washington Post, but referred to a statement released by Fitzgerald to the press earlier this month, saying that the organization “regrets that a former employee and member felt it necessary at this time to file a suit against the YMCA for an incident that she alleges took place almost two years ago.”
The YMCA took “affirmative steps at that time to address her concerns, developed a policy on breast-feeding, and provided training for its employees,” the statement said.
“The Ocean Community YMCA wants to assure the community that it does not restrict where members or program participants may breastfeed within the facility,” the statement said.
Best for Babes, a breast-feeding rights group, has received at least six complaints to its hotline about YMCAs, more than generated by any other organization, said Michelle Hickman, director of advocacy for the group.
Volunteers with the group have compiled a list of more than 40 breast-feeding incidents at YMCAs, including those reported on social media or to news outlets or parenting blogs, dating to 2004.
Mothers said they were told they could not breast-feed in YMCA locker rooms or in child- care areas. Multiple incidents have occurred at YMCA swimming pools, Hickman said, where women have been told that breast-feeding near the pool is unsanitary and indiscreet. Such policies put women in a bind, particularly when they have other children, Hickman said.
“What do you do? Leave your other children unattended in the pool, while you go inside to nurse your child?”
A string of similar breast-feeding incidents at YMCAs in Canada prompted the national YMCA there to apologize and issue policy guidance in 2014 that clarifies the legal rights of women to breast-feed without being asked to cover up, move or be more discreet.
Gooding said she hopes the YMCA in the United States can make a similar policy statement.
“We have to stop this whole idea that by breast-feeding we are doing something wrong,” she said.