A women’s conference hosted by Brigham Young University does not allow mothers to nurse their babies at the event, a policy that is drawing criticism from Mormon women who say they have faced gossip and official reprimands for openly breastfeeding in spaces run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The issue of breastfeeding in public is especially sensitive in Mormon spaces, where motherhood is considered a woman’s highest calling and modesty is also a commandment. It is now legal to breastfeed in public in all 50 states, but Idaho and Utah – states with high Mormon populations – were the last to pass those laws, approving them in 2018.

For many Mormon women, raising children is a religious choice, a divine appointment that brings spiritual blessings. A 1995 church text called “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” says, “Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children.” But some women say that in practice, the Mormon Church often does not welcome women who breastfeed in public – especially without a cover – in church-owned spaces.

Children under 16 are not allowed at the two-day, ticketed women’s conference that will be held April 30-May 1, and the policy specifically notes that nursing infants “cannot be accommodated.” The rule has been in place for several years, organizers say, but several women have raised complaints in recent years, which was reported this week in the Salt Lake Tribune.

“The Women’s Conference format, with its lengthy sessions involving lectures and other formal presentations attended by large audiences, is not easily navigated with children and doing so can be disruptive and problematic for others in attendance,” Carri Jenkins, assistant to the president for university communications at BYU, said in an email.

Other non-athletic events involving formal programs have similar age guidelines, she said.

BYU, which is owned by the Mormon Church, could make an exception to its no-children rule and allow for non-mobile babies, said Carrie Salisbury, who has advocated through a campaign launched in 2018 called Let Babies Eat.

“Breastfeeding discrimination outright like this is terrible,” she said.

Mormons consider motherhood one of their primary identities, said Amy Hoyt, an adjunct professor of Religious Studies at University of the Pacific in California, who writes on Mormonism and gender.

“It’s considered sacred and part of their theological and spiritual identity,” Hoyt said. “A conflict between the sacredness of motherhood and the practicality of bringing a nursing baby to a conference can be a little bit jarring for some of the women.”

Some women, however, might feel like the BYU conference could provide an opportunity for women to feel empowered without being surrounded by children. “There aren’t many spaces in Mormonism to just learn and not be handing out Cheerios and calming babies,” said Jana Reiss, a Mormon writer for Religion News Service. “I think they want women to feel that this is their space.”

A clash between ideas about breastfeeding and modesty has taken place in other religious environments as well, though in recent years, Pope Francis has made a point of welcoming breastfeeding mothers.

The Mormon Church’s leadership instruction manual does not include anything specific about breastfeeding, but nursing mothers should always feel welcome, church spokeswoman Iren Caso said in an email. Children under 8 are only allowed in designated areas of the Mormon Church’s larger General Conference, a meeting for all members.

All Mormon chapels are designed to include mothers’ rooms for nursing. But many women say those rooms feel too separate from the main meeting space, and they often include pungent smells since they often include diaper changing stations. Mormon women who wear church-approved undergarments can buy ones designed for nursing, though some women say they are uncomfortable.

BYU’s policy conjured up memories for at least one Mormon woman who was initially refused a temple recommend, a signature she needs to enter Mormon temples, after she was reprimanded by her bishop for nursing her 18-month-old with her breast uncovered.

The woman, who requested anonymity to protect her children’s privacy, said the bishop compared her nursing to a man wearing a hat in church, something he would consider disrespectful.

“He said people were worried about young men sexualizing my breastfeeding,” she said.

Her frustration with the church has led her to stop tithing, and she doesn’t plan to renew her temple recommend this year.

“I’m not going to feel like I needed to be ashamed for feeding my child in the way God created my breasts to do,” she said.

Rachel Hunt Steenblik, who now lives in China, said that the nursing rooms she has visited while attending services in New York and in Utah haven’t included good places to nurse her three children.

“It’s super clear they’re not designed by LDS women,” she said. “There are sometimes women sitting on the floor, usually only 2 comfortable rooms. People change their kid’s poopy diaper.”

Sabrena Suite-Mangum said that during a 2011 meeting with her and her husband, a bishop tried to throw a jacket over her to cover her when she was nursing her newborn.

“It’s an institution that proclaims to champion motherhood; but there’s a pecking order,” said Suite-Mangum, who lives in Holland, Utah.

Key leadership positions in the Mormon Church, including bishops and stake presidents, are reserved for men.

Jody England, a member of the Mormon Church who lives in Salt Lake City, said that 30 years ago when she was nursing, it wasn’t an issue like it has become today. “When my kids were little and babies needed to be breastfed, no one balked,” she said. “It’s not like you were flashing yourself.”

She pointed to Mormon art, including a breastfeeding pioneer woman pictured on a monument in the middle of Temple Square in Salt Lake City, to illustrate her point.

She also found a photo printed in the British magazine the Graphic, from Sept. 2, 1871, depicting a church meeting in the Tabernacle where Brigham Young, the second president of the Mormon Church who founded Salt Lake City, was speaking from the pulpit. A woman is shown pulling part of her dress open to nurse her baby, and part of her breast is shown.

Madison Fitzer said issues she faced while breastfeeding were part of the reason she left the Mormon Church. She said she was called into her bishop’s office in 2015 and told she needed to cover herself while breastfeeding or she could lose her temple recommend.

“He said, ‘Nursing gives men impure thoughts. Garments were there to be modest,’ and when my breast is out, it takes people’s mind off of God and puts it on me,” she said.

Jenkins, the spokeswoman at BYU, said that mothers are welcome to nurse their children on BYU’s campus and at many other BYU events. The campus offers a map of where mothers may nurse their babies.

Salisbury said a line protecting open breastfeeding – or prohibiting it – should be added to the Mormon handbook, so local leaders don’t have to decide on the spot. A new version of the handbook is expected to be released later this month.

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