You may have seen occasional news stories about breastfeeding mothers being asked to stop nursing in a store, a restaurant or some other public place. Sometimes, the stories become newsworthy because of the reaction, breastfeeding supporters conducing a “nurse-in.”
So, this is today’s question: Is public breastfeeding legal?
The short answer is yes, but there is far more to the story.
Laws vary from state to state. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 45 states (and Washington, DC) have laws specifically allowing women to breastfeed in any public or private location.
Want to know if your state has such a law? This is the list: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
It took me awhile, but after painstakingly comparing this list to a list of states, I concluded that these are the states that do not have a law specifically allowing a woman to nurse her child in public: Idaho, Michigan, South Dakota, Virginia and West Virginia.
Twenty-eight states, including Michigan, South Dakota and Virginia have at least passed laws excluding public breastfeeding from public indecency laws.
But what about Idaho and West Virginia, which aren’t on either of these lists?
Well, Idaho has a law which includes breastfeeding as an acceptable reason to postpone jury service but there are no laws in West Virginia on the subject of breastfeeding.
This is Maryland’s law on public breastfeeding, Section 20-801 of the Health-General Article of the Code of Maryland:
- (a) In general.- A mother may breast-feed her child in any public or private location in which the mother and child are authorized to be.
(b) Restriction of right prohibited.- A person may not restrict or limit the right of a mother to breast-feed her child.
Similar language appears in many of the state laws, and in a federal law on the subject. Basically, a nursing mother can breastfeed her child any place that she is authorized to be. That includes stores, restaurants and any other place open to the public.
But did you notice that there is no enforcement provision in the Maryland law? The statute confers a right, but there is no remedy for a violation of it! If, for example, a mall security person asks a mother to only nurse in the bathroom — a clear violation of Maryland law — there is no legal remedy. No legal action can be taken against the security officer of the mall for a violation of this statutory right.
Unfortunately, this is true of most of the state laws. As best I can tell, only these states have an enforcement provision in their public breastfeeding law: Connecticut, Washington DC, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.
Oh, by the way. Maryland has one more law on the subject of breastfeeding. Breast pumps are exempt from state sales tax.
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**These questions and answers are designed to provide helpful information that can be read quickly. They are neither a full explanation of the subject nor legal advice. To learn more, and to receive legal advice on which you can rely, contact me or another lawyer.