A woman got a pastor's apology for criticism she received after breastfeeding in an open area of a church building, reports the Livingston Daily — a Gannett newspaper in Michigan.
All in all, the paper offers a fair, well-rounded account of what happened on a Sunday in June.
I don't have many complaints about the coverage, which I came across via the Pew Research Center's daily religion headlines.
But I do have a few questions — one of them the same as I asked about a Virginia breastfeeding story last year. I'll elaborate in a moment.
First, though, let's review the basic facts out of Michigan:
A Brighton pastor has apologized to a woman who said she was shamed for breastfeeding inside a church while waiting for her other children to finish Sunday school.
Amy Marchant, 29, said she asked for a public apology after she was accused of immodesty and potentially inspiring “lustfulness” in men for nursing her child at The Naz Church in Brighton in mid-June.
“Of all the places, it is most hurtful when it comes from your own church, that you are going to cause guys to lust after you,” Marchant said Thursday.
Ben Walls, Sr., lead pastor, said the church supports and encourages breastfeeding, and the Father’s Day incident “had to do with breastfeeding, but didn’t.”
He said three different spaces are set aside for “those who want a private space” – a lounge outside of the restroom specifically created for nursing mothers a decade ago and two other rooms in a children’s area “designated for ladies who want privacy.”
“That is what we want to say – we have nothing against breastfeeding and we are in favor,” Walls said. “It’s very hard because we understand that she was very hurt and we apologize to her. We’re very sorry for the embarrassment and hurt caused when she was asked to cover or use one of those rooms. We apologize for her hurt and embarrassment; that wasn’t the intention.”
Keep reading, and a key issue seems to be that the mother had exposed both her breasts while feeding the baby in a public area. While the woman says she was "shamed," the story notes that she was confronted after the fact in a private message. You can read the full report for all the specific details both from the perspective of the mother and that of the church.
My questions relate more to other important context: For one, the mother twice in the story calls the congregation — which she has since left — her "own church." Does that mean she is or was a member? How long had she attended the church?
Those seems like important facts to include, especially since many mothers might have chosen to handle the dispute internally rather than taking their concerns about their "own church" public. (I also would have welcomed more precise information about the church itself, including its average attendance and denominational affiliation.)
But my larger question relates to the legal aspect of the story. Here's a chunk of the relevant section:
Marchant then asked to meet with church leaders to discuss the issue and the Breastfeeding Anti-Discrimination Act, signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder in 2014.
The law states in part that a woman may not be denied “full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of a place of public accommodation or public service because she is breastfeeding a child.”
My question — which I asked about a Virginia case last year — is: Does such a law apply to a church? Is there any religious liberty issue here at all? A private church sanctuary is different than a public shopping mall bench, right?
The story makes it sound like church officials did not raise a religious freedom issue:
Walls acknowledges he was unfamiliar with the law, but was educated on it during a second meeting at the end of July with Marchant, who was joined by attorney Bill Amadeo and Barbara Robertson, owner of the Breastfeeding Center of Ann Arbor.
Marchant said she was concerned, however, that church staff seemed more focused on continuing to use the word "immodest" and whether she planned to sue than on addressing the issue. She said she has no intention of filing a lawsuit, but wanted a public apology and amendment to church policies and procedures about the “appropriate way to handle breastfeeding mothers and what to do and not do.”
Walls said he mailed on Thursday a written apology to Marchant’s friend. He also said church officials are writing a new policy that will ask staff, greeters and ushers not to approach a woman who is breastfeeding, and only tell them where a private room is if they ask. He said there is a plan to train staff on the new policy.
Still, I'd love — in this case and the last one — for reporters to engage the religious liberty question. That's a legal matter, of course, and separate from the issue of what is the right and Christian approach for the church to take.