Does religious freedom extend to churches stopping women from breastfeeding during services?

The law was on the woman's side.

So reported the Washington Post in a recent Metro cover story on a Virginia mother who complained she was asked to find a private room while breastfeeding in church:

Annie Peguero was trying to soothe her agitated 19-month-old baby in church on Sunday when she did what she often does — she nursed her. But her efforts to calm her daughter caused a stir in the sanctuary of Summit Church in Springfield.
A woman promptly asked the Dumfries mother to decamp to a private room, she said. Peguero declined and was later told that the church does not allow breast-feeding without a cover because it could make men, teenagers or new churchgoers “uncomfortable,” she said. One woman told her the sermon was being live-streamed and that she would not want Peguero to be seen breast-feeding.
The mother of two left her seat in the back of the church and fled, embarrassed and in shock. The next day, she posted her own livestream video on Facebook — with her baby, Autumn, at her breast — telling viewers what happened and urging women to stand up for breast-feeding.
“I want you to know that breast-feeding is normal,” she said.
It is also a legally protected right in Virginia, where the legislature passed a 2015 law that says women have a right to breast-feed anywhere they have a legal right to be.

But does that law apply to churches? If so, should it? Does the government really have a right to regulate what happens in a religious assembly? 

From the Post:

Officials with the church did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Washington Post. Attorney Rebecca Geller said on Wednesday that she got a call from executive pastor Tony Trayers after repeated calls to Summit Church and was told that the church was not aware of the law and would look into it. There is no exemption for religious institutions under the law.

It's interesting to me that — in a story published on a Thursday about something that happened the previous Sunday — the Post apparently was seeking comment at the last minute. At least that's what the note that "the church did not immediately respond to requests from comment" would seem to indicate. This seems like a case where the newspaper would make more of an effort — and allow more time — before proceeding with a non-breaking story.

But back to my main point: I wish the Post had delved more into the religious nature of the location where the incident occurred. A private church sanctuary is different than a public shopping mall bench, right?

Via Facebook, I queried a few folks — men and women — in ministry, and their responses were varied.

Stacey said:

On one side, I don't understand why a woman should have to leave the room to feed her child. Breastfeeding has been the most common method for feeding babies for a long, long time. There's not an objectively good reason for it to be embarrassing or distracting. On the other side, whether there's a good reason for it or not, the reality is that our hyper-sexed culture and our hyper-reactive-and-therefore-also-hyper-sexed churches have created a culture in which people actually are distracted by breastfeeding, so I can see an argument where women could be somewhat compassionate toward the (unnecessary) sensitivities of others. 

Jeff quipped:

Some people are tempted by seeing a breast, but if it is covered, I see no problem. But in this kind of conversation I usually default to the whole Pauline argument of "if it offends my brother, I won't do it." Therefore, you will never see me breastfeed in public.

Joking aside, part of the issue in the case highlighted by the Post appears to be the woman's objection to covering her breast, as evidenced by the photo published by the newspaper.

I also asked my friends about the constitutional (freedom of religion) question. Again, diverse viewpoints were represented.

Brie opined:

I can see the state making an argument that they should be allowed to intervene because the church was being discriminatory toward women (violation of equal protection) on something that is not part of religious practice (which would be shielded by the 1st Amendment).

But Tony suggested:

This issue is not a hill I would die on, but I think it is a dangerous precedent for the government to tell churches what must or must not happen in the context of their worship to God. The "wall of separation" is not a semipermeable membrane.

Many more comments from Facebook friends — some more passionate than others — testified to the emotional nature of this discussion.

I'd love to see a follow-up report by the Post — one addressing the religious freedom question and giving the other side of the story, if the church were willing to respond.

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