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Judge tells breast-feeding mother, ‘Ma’am, you need to cover up’

(Courtesy of Stephanie Rhodus)

Stephanie Rhodus says her 8-month-old son, Archer, doesn’t like to be covered up when she is breast-feeding him.

But when the 25-year-old tried to feed her son Monday during an appearance in a North Carolina court, she was told to cover up by a judge, who scolded her.

“I was terrified; I never expected something like that,” Rhodus told The Washington Post. “It caught me completely off-guard. I couldn’t think straight to present my case properly. It was just — I was in shock.”

An audio recording of District Court Judge Peter Knight’s exchange with Rhodus was obtained by local media outlets, including the Asheville Citizen-Times.

“Ma’am, you need to cover up,” Knight can be heard saying in the recording, which was also obtained by an ABC affiliate. “For you not to realize that is absolutely ridiculous. Step outside, and cover up right now. Stand up, and go, now.”

According to the Citizen-Times, Knight told Rhodus that it was okay for her young son to be at the proceedings but that nursing him wasn’t appropriate.

“I’m fine with having a child [in the courtroom] if you don’t have other arrangements made; that’s certainly going to happen,” Knight said, according to the Citizen-Times. “But to nurse the child in the courtroom is just absolutely inappropriate. Now step outside and button up, or whatever you need to do to button up. Are you going to be able to stay buttoned up?”

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Under North Carolina law, mothers are allowed to breast-feed their children in public.

Rhodus told The Post that her son has been “exclusively breast-fed for eight months” and won’t take a bottle.

She said he was “crying and very visibly upset” through the rest of the court appearance.

“We as a court routinely accommodate women who are nursing, including while they are waiting for a case to be called in the courtroom,” Knight said in a statement emailed to The Post. “However, when a case is called and a party is participating in a formal hearing before the court, all litigants are expected to respect the same rules of procedure, decorum and dress.

“That was the case here. If breastfeeding accommodations were needed, those certainly would have been made.”

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Rhodus was in Knight’s courtroom in Henderson County for a hearing involving her oldest child, she told The Post.

She was “shocked” by the judge’s comments, though during her exchange with Knight, Rhodus said: “I do apologize for the breast-feeding.”

“He was so condescending and so aggressive, and I knew that by law I had the right to breastfeed my child there, and I wanted to declare that I had the right to do that there, but I was terrified,” she told ABC News.

The North Carolina statute that addresses breast-feeding states: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a woman may breast feed in any public or private location where she is otherwise authorized to be, irrespective of whether the nipple of the mother’s breast is uncovered during or incidental to the breast feeding.”

“I understand a judge has more control over the courtroom setting than a manager would over a restaurant,” Valerie Vanderlip, a North Carolina breast-feeding advocate, told the Citizen-Times. “One problem with the state law as it stands is that it has no enforcement provision.”

Vanderlip, the leader of La Leche League of Buncombe County, noted that “on a personal level, I think the child’s rights were negatively affected by that judges’s choice. I think that’s something that is rarely thought of, especially when you think of what the reaction was for that baby.”

She added: “When young women, even fifth-grade girls, hear stories like this in the news, that could affect their decision whether to breast feed their baby, and breast feeding is the most important choice you can make. As far as nutrition for a newborn, it is the preferred feeding method.”

Rhodus told the Citizen-Times that she has breast-fed in court before — “including last week when she appeared before a female judge who had no problem with her feeding her child,” the newspaper reported.

She was in Knight’s court as a defendant against her mother, who has custody of Rhodus’s 8-year-old son.

According to ABC affiliate WLOS:

The judge gave Rhodus’ mom a six-month protective order for Stephanie not to see her child. Rhodus tried to make her case further, and Judge Knight threatened to hold her in contempt.

Rhodus told the station that she’s bringing her baby back to court next week.

A previous version of this post misstated the nature of the hearing.

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