Is it legal to breastfeed in public, or in a privately owned store? The answer to that question will depend on a number of factors, including your state's breastfeeding, indecent exposure, and public accommodation laws.
The customer's ordeal highlights the ongoing national debate over public breastfeeding and confusion about the current legal status of breastfeeding in public. Here's how a variety of laws can come into play:
Indecent exposure laws. State indecent exposure laws typically focus on lewdness more than nudity. Many state and local indecent exposure laws don't apply to the female breast, while others do. Several states have added breastfeeding exceptions to their indecent exposure laws, with language typically saying the practice is not "lewd," "obscene," "disorderly," or "sexual in nature."
Public accommodation laws. Generally speaking, public accommodation laws prevent businesses from controlling or excluding customers in a discriminatory manner. Many states have amended their public accommodations laws to specifically allow women to breastfeed in public or private places. But the scope of protection may vary depending on the particular state's definition of a "public accommodation."
Public breastfeeding laws. Most public breastfeeding statutes grant a mother the right to breastfeed in any location -- public or private -- in which she is "authorized to be." But some states include certain limitations on that protection. For example, a few states require nursing mothers to be discreet and cover up; others, like Illinois, limit the right in certain settings such as "places of worship." But remember, businesses are typically not allowed to ask women to cover up in states that don't require it.
In states with no public breastfeeding law on the books, nursing mothers are usually at the mercy of private business owners and local law enforcement. Fortunately, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are at least 45 states with laws that protect a woman's right to breastfeed in public.