A decision last year by the Eau Claire City Council to ban children from the raised platform where council members sit, which had a ripple effect of preventing mothers from breast-feeding there, has attracted attention from the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin.
Looking for clarity on whether the resolution specifically prohibits mothers from breast-feeding at the dais, the ACLU of Wisconsin sent a letter to council President Kerry Kincaid on Jan. 2.
“We request that the Eau Claire City Council ensure that this (resolution) is either rescinded or interpreted in a way that does not prohibit breast-feeding, even during council meetings and even by someone who is on the dais,” the letter states.
It continues: “If interpreted to include prohibiting a child from being on the dais for the purpose of breast-feeding, it would appear to unlawfully prevent a woman’s right to breast-feed her child in public.”
The debate over interfering with a breast-feeding mother centers around Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle, who notified Kincaid in September 2016 that she planned to breast-feed her child, with whom she was pregnant at the time.
Kincaid told Emmanuelle no, saying it would violate meeting decorum. After that, a resolution banning children and toddlers from the dais, where the city conducts its business, was brought before the City Council for a vote on Oct. 24. That policy was approved in a 7-1 vote with Emmanuelle, Councilman Andrew Werthmann and Councilwoman Kate Beaton abstaining. Councilman Michael Xiong was the lone no vote.
“It seems to me the ACLU shares a curiosity that many members of the public have of how can a municipality get away with gender-based discrimination,” Emmanuelle said earlier this week.
Kincaid, who said the issue of rescinding the policy hasn’t been brought to the council, responded to the letter with her own dated Jan. 21.
She wrote that “a majority of the Eau Claire Council decided we could not maintain an effective meeting protocol without restricting access to the dais. The work of the Council and the citizens who appear before us deserve our full attention. The resolution that passed reflects this sentiment.”
She also said that how the resolution is implemented might change over time and be interpreted based on the circumstances.
“Over the years of governing together we have developed an affection for public service and for one another,” she wrote. “This includes — as much as we are able — support and accommodations for individual members in the performance of their duties.”
According to the letter from the ACLU, the attorneys believe the ordinance was written with the aim of banning mothers from breast-feeding while at the dais.
“We are also concerned that the (resolution), despite its language encompassing ‘children,’ appears to have been passed with the actual intent of prohibiting breast-feeding,” the ACLU attorneys wrote.
The letter is signed by staff attorney Asma Kadri and senior staff attorney Karyn Rotker, both of the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation, and Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney of the ACLU National Women’s Rights Project.
Kadri wrote in an email to the Leader-Telegram that breast-feeding mothers should have equal access to political office, and a mother’s need to breast-feed should be accommodated.
“Based on news reports, it appears that the policy of no children on the Eau Claire City Council dais was adopted for the purpose of preventing one member of the council from participating equally in council meetings while feeding her child,” she wrote.
Being that the resolution impacted breast-feeding mothers, it upset state and national women’s rights groups in October, as well as local breast-feeding mothers and advocates.
City attorney Stephen Nick wrote a letter to council members in fall stating that the resolution is about whether children and toddlers should be allowed on the dais. He stated that the council can establish rules relating to decorum in council chambers.
The ACLU responded to that notion, saying that breast-feeding shouldn’t be considered violating decorum.
“There is nothing disruptive or shameful about feeding one’s young child, and the ability to do so free from governmental interference implicates women’s ability to fully participate in public life,” the letter states.
The ACLU didn’t respond to questions about whether it’s planning more correspondence with city officials or what action it could take against the city.
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