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Mom fights JCC breastfeeding policy

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Beth Winegarner
News Pointer Editor
March 30, 2004

When Lisa Tabb recently breastfed her 7-month-old daughter at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center, she didn’t expect it to become a civil rights issue.

Tabb said that when she visited the center on March 4, she was breast-feeding her infant while watching her 5-year-old son, Aaron, swim in the pool. Within minutes, a staff member approached her with a towel and asked her whether she would cover up, because someone in the pool had complained.

She had been a member of the center, off and on, for several months; it was the first time Tabb was asked to cover herself. She was shocked.

“It was outrageous. She said, ‘Someone has complained, and that’s our policy,'” Tabb said. She immediately canceled her membership and called the center’s director the next day to ask about their policy.

According to a letter Tabb and her lawyer, Larry Organ, sent to the JCC asking it to change its policy, Judy Wolff-Bolton returned Tabb’s phone call and confirmed that “it was in fact ‘their policy to ask a member to cover up when another member complains.'”

“It’s our policy to promote breastfeeding throughout the center. We openly encourage mothers to breastfeed in our center, and it happens here every day,” said Patty Gessner, director of marketing for the JCC.

In Tabb’s case, Gessner said, there were “extenuating circumstances. The manager felt it was inappropriate. She asked her to consider covering up, [and] did it very, very politely.”

A California law, passed in 1997, made it legal for a woman to breastfeed her child in any location, public or private, where the mother and child are authorized to be present, except the private home or residence of another.

Organ said that when Tabb pressed Wolff-Bolton regarding the legality of the JCC policy, “She responded, ‘Come on, there are men and boys here.’ The problem we have with it is, that’s exactly what the statute was intended to avoid. [The policy] suggests several things that might discourage women from breastfeeding — that somehow it’s inappropriate, or offensive to other people. The reality is, if people find it offensive they should just not look.”

“It’s not in the spirit of the law,” Tabb said. “It’s against the law for them to be asking me to cover up. They don’t interpret the law that way … their lawyers say that they believe they are within the rights of the law.”

“This is not an issue at the JCC. We’re sorry she was offended,” Gessner said. “In no way did we intend to discourage her from breastfeeding her child.”

Tabb told the JCC that if it did not change the policy, she would consider legal action. “They say they are going to educate their staff but they don’t say they’re going to change their policy,” she said.

“It is a civil rights issue,” said Organ, who works for the law offices of Philip Kay, which handles sex harassment, race discrimination and whistleblower cases. “It’s important for women in this state to be able to assert their rights without being discouraged from doing so. We are still trying to work it out without having to file [suit]. All Lisa wants [is for] the JCC to change their policy. She’s not looking to get rich.”

Tabb said that once it happened to her, she asked other women and found that many had been asked to cover themselves when breastfeeding in public places. “My feeling is that I was harassed. It’s outrageous. It has intimidated women. I’m the only one who has stood up about it, but it’s the most important thing we can do.”

This article originally appeared in the San Rafael/Terra Linda News Pointer.

Written by Beth Winegarner

March 30, 2004 at 8:59 PM

Posted in Health, San Rafael

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