Updated at 12:57 p.m. Saturday. Ocean Community YMCA sued by Rhode Island ACLU over breastfeeding incident

Updated at 12:57 p.m. Saturday. Ocean Community YMCA sued by Rhode Island ACLU over breastfeeding incident

The Westerly Sun

WAKEFIELD — The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island filed a lawsuit Friday claiming that the Ocean Community YMCA of Westerly violated a member’s right to breastfeed in public in violation of state anti-discrimination laws and a more specific statute that allows it.

The suit was filed in Washington County Superior Court on behalf of Elizabeth Gooding of Hopkinton, a mother of three and a former employee of the Y. According to the complaint, Gooding was nursing her 1-year-old daughter in February 2015 in the Y’s day care area when she was told by an employee to move. She then spoke with two female supervisors who told her she could not breastfeed her child in any “public area inside the YMCA due to the concern that young boys could view her breastfeeding.” During an interview on Friday, Gooding said she was surprised by the response she received from her supervisors.

“I expected them to be as shocked as I was and to remedy the situation,” Gooding said.

Gooding then spoke with Tim Babcock, the YMCA’s vice president of operations, who told her “covering up was her best option while breastfeeding if she wanted to breastfeed at the YMCA.” But, Gooding said, covering up was not much of an option. “My daughter was 1 at the time, I couldn’t put a blanket over her head,” Gooding said.

A month later, Gooding again tried to breastfeed her daughter at the facility and was told that she had to relocate if she wanted to breastfeed her child. Gooding then spoke directly with Ocean Community YMCA president and CEO Maureen Fitzgerald, who denied there was any need to change the Y’s public breastfeeding policy, refused to conduct training for employees, and added that Gooding should be “more discreet,” Gooding said.

Later in 2015, Gooding was told she could no longer bring her baby to the mom/baby yoga class she taught. “That was strange because I was using my daughter to show the other moms the poses for their children. It felt a little like retaliation,” Gooding said. Soon after, Gooding decided she was no longer comfortable working at the Y and left her position.

In a statement issued through the ACLU, Gooding said, “I am speaking out for women who have been shamed, degraded, harassed, or otherwise prevented from nurturing their children by breastfeeding. Following the extremely upsetting incidents of breastfeeding discrimination at the YMCA, I made a choice that I would take a stand in hopes of enacting effective change in support of one of our most natural civil rights. I encourage women who face breastfeeding discrimination not to be silenced but to raise your voice.”

On Friday, Fitzgerald twice said she was preparing a statement for this article, but later in the day Babcock said the Y had been advised by its lawyer not to comment. Babcock said he did not know the lawyer’s name.

The lawsuit alleges that the YMCA violated the state Breastfeeding in Public Places law and the state Civil Rights Act, which prohibits gender discrimination. The breastfeeding law, which was adopted by the General Assembly in 2008, allows breastfeeding in any place that is open to the public. The suit seeks a declaration of Gooding’s rights by a Superior Court judge and asks the court to require the YMCA to develop and publish a breastfeeding policy consistent with the two laws. Further, the suit asks the court to force the Y to develop training for staff members and volunteers concerning the rights of female patrons and employees to breastfeed in public places in all of its facilities.

Gooding is also seeking compensation for lost employment opportunities and for the law’s violation, as well as attorney’s fees, costs and expenses.

H. Jefferson Melish, the ACLU volunteer lawyer who filed the lawsuit, said that “Rhode Island state law specifically protects the right of women who are openly breastfeeding to do so anywhere they are authorized to be. Given this law and the fact that breastfeeding is associated with numerous benefits, it’s disheartening that discrimination against nursing mothers still exists. This suit is proof that people still need to be made aware that, in Rhode Island, public breastfeeding is a legal right.”

When Gooding was unwilling to reach a solution through discussions with the Y she decided to sue with the assistance of the ACLU, Melish said. He said he was not aware of similar lawsuits in Rhode Island since the breastfeeding law was adopted.

Fitzgerald of the YMCA isssued the following statement on Saturday afternoon: “The Ocean Community YMCA regrets that a former employee and member felt it necessary at this time to file suit against the YMCA for an incident that she alleges took place almost two years ago. The Ocean Community YMCA took affirmative steps at that time to address her concerns. The Ocean Community YMCA developed a policy on breast feeding in the workplace and provided education for its employees in this regard. The Ocean Community YMCA also created a private area for employees who choose to breastfeed, if they so desire to use it. 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 Ocean Community YMCA is confident that it is in compliance with federal and Rhode Island law in this regard and remains committed to the health, safety and welfare of its employees, members and program participants.”


This article was edited at 12:55 p.m. on May 13 to add a statement from the YMCA.


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