- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 26, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - A group of Utah lawmakers on Tuesday passed one of two proposals this year that seek to protect breastfeeding and pregnant women at work or in public places.

Members of a Senate business committee voted 5-0 to advance the proposal that would require businesses to ensure pregnant women or breastfeeding mothers have accommodations such as extra breaks during work. The plan by Sen. Todd Weiler, a Republican from Woods Cross, would amend the state’s antidiscrimination act. The plan will now move to the full Senate for debate.

Weiler’s proposal and one other take aim at the hot-button issue of when and where women should be allowed to breastfeed in a state with the highest birthrate in the country and higher-than-average rates of breastfeeding mothers.

If Utah passes Weiler’s proposal, the state would join more than a dozen others with similar requirements, said Marina Lowe, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah.

DelAnne Jessop-Haslam, a 37-year-old woman with a young daughter, told lawmakers on Tuesday that she needed similar protections when she was pregnant. She said she lost her job 20 days before giving birth because pregnancy complications caused her to reduce work hours and take a monthlong leave.

Sen. Deidre Henderson, a Republican from Spanish Fork, said that after she had a child, she had to breastfeed in public bathroom stalls, so she is sensitive to this issue. “None of that is pleasant or sanitary,” she said during the committee hearing.

In addition to Weiler’s bill, lawmakers are expected to consider a proposal this year from Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, that would add a prohibition on breastfeeding discrimination to a state law that already prohibits businesses from refusing to serve someone because of their religion, ethnicity or gender. At least eight other states have similar legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Though he didn’t offer any statistics, Dabakis said breastfeeding mothers get kicked out of public places with surprising frequency in Utah. He said he began crafting the bill after a friend told him about her experience being asked to leave a mall because she was breastfeeding her 4-month-old baby.

“Women are doing the most natural thing that can be done, and it makes some people, particularly men, uncomfortable,” Dabakis said.

The libertarian-leaning nonprofit group Libertas Institute opposes both pieces of legislation. Libertas Institute President Connor Boyack said he is sympathetic toward women who are shamed if they breastfeed in public, but he said the proposals would infringe on the property rights of business owners.

“If the owner of the business does not want to affiliate with breastfeeding women on the premises of his business, that is a fundamental right that should not be violated, which is exactly what both of these bills would do,” Boyack said.

Utah currently bars local governments from passing laws restricting where women can breastfeed in public. It also does not consider breastfeeding in public a violation of lewdness, obscenity or indecent exposure laws.

Utah’s birthrate dipped to a historic low in 2014, continuing a downward trend that began during the Great Recession, new state data show. But Utah still has the highest birth rate in the country, largely driven by a population base rooted in the Mormon culture that encourages larger families.

The percentage of women in the state who breastfeed their children is also higher than the national average, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2013 report.

“That type of discrimination ought not be tolerated,” Dabakis said.

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