A Mormon woman attending church in northern Utah with her four kids and husband sat down in a foyer last month and eventually started breastfeeding her 19-month-old baby.
It was a routine Sunday for the mother, who spoke to BuzzFeed News but asked to remain anonymous, until after the meetings ended and her bishop — a local lay leader akin to a pastor — called her in for a talk.
"He called me in and told me that people had complained," the woman said, "and they were just worried about the young men sexualizing my breastfeeding of my daughter."
The conversation, she said, was "ridiculous."
"I basically told him that I wasn't going to change what I’m doing and that the Lord is the only one that can get me to change my standpoint on this issue," she recalled.
Two weeks later, the woman said her stake president — a leader one rung above a bishop — called her in for a meeting and told her she would need to cover up while nursing "because it's a modesty issue." The woman said the church leader quoted a pamphlet intended for teenagers and said women "should be clothed and modest at all times so that men don't have dirty thoughts."
The woman, who was accompanied by her husband to the meeting, described the encounter with the stake president as contentious, recalling that she walked out three separate times. During one of those absences, she said, the stake president insisted her husband needed to "control" her behavior.
"While I was gone he told my husband that he needed to control me," she continued.
When both the woman and her husband refused to budge, the stake president responded by telling them he wouldn't sign their "temple recommends" — documents that provide Mormons access to the religion's most sacred buildings, as well as to rites that members of the faith believe are essential for their salvation. Temples are also where Mormons hold weddings, as well as ordinances such as baptisms for the dead, which are meant as a way of offering salvation to deceased ancestors.
The incident, which occurred last month, tipped off a long-simmering debate within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known commonly as the Mormon church, which has for decades foregrounded support for families as one of its most cherished values. And it has prompted the launch of a campaign to push church officials to clearly define how and where mothers are allowed to breastfeed their children.
Carrie Salisbury, who has advocated for the church to create a policy on breastfeeding and interviewed the northern Utah woman for a blog post last week, said many other breastfeeding women have been told to cover up at church or step out of public view, though this was the first time she had heard of a local leader withholding a temple recommend.
"It’s like the comfort and the needs of the mother and the child are coming second to the comfort of the people around her," Salisbury said.
The northern Utah mother said she knows of other women who have split with the faith over similar experiences.
"I’ve spoken with several other moms who have had this exact same problem," she said. "They've actually even left the church because of it."
Salisbury said the problem is the lack of a clear, church-wide policy. Laws on public breastfeeding vary from state to state, but in general it is a protected act in the US. However, the women who spoke to BuzzFeed News said that they were uncertain about the legality of breastfeeding in church because chapels are private property. They consequently want the church to take a stand.
"Since there’s no policy, what has been happening is that it’s sort of been left up to the determination of the local leader, the bishop or stake president," Salisbury said.
All local leaders in the LDS church are drawn from the congregation, are not paid, receive no formal training, and serve temporary terms typically lasting a few years. Jenne Alderks, a Mormon and doula who also wants the church to articulate a clear policy on breastfeeding, described the results of this system as "leadership roulette."
"That’s the game women are playing," Alderks told BuzzFeed News. "Some leaders are really supportive and some are not. Some will apparently take away your temple recommend."
Some members of the church have responded to the experience of the northern Utah woman by suggesting she should have covered up or moved to a "mother's room" that some LDS meetinghouses have. But Alderks and Salisbury said that not all babies will continue to nurse under a blanket, and that mother's rooms — which are often attached to bathrooms — can be cramped, uncomfortable, and lacking in basic amenities.
"It can feel very isolating to always sequester yourself behind a closed door in order to protect the prudish sensibilities of the people around you," Alderks said.
She added that women facing calls to cover up are often told it's a matter of modesty, but that the underlying issue has to do with people sexualizing breastfeeding.
"It comes into this idea of modesty rhetoric that any level of skin showing is immodest and sexual," she said. "But the purpose of breasts are to feed babies. The bottom line is it is biologically appropriate for babies to be fed from their mother’s bodies."
In response to the northern Utah woman's experience, other women are encouraging members of the LDS faith to write letters to church leadership asking for clarity. Salisbury said that the effort has been discussed in a closed Facebook group, with more than 200 people saying they planned to reach out to their church leaders about the issue. Her initial blog post on the incident has been met with an overwhelming response, racking up tens of thousands of views and numerous comments, she said.
A spokesperson for the LDS church declined to answer questions about the incident or say whether officials have considered drafting a new policy on breastfeeding during religious services.
The northern Utah woman told BuzzFeed News that she hopes the church will respond with a policy to protect the rights of women to breastfeed as they see fit at church, adding that such practices are common in congregations outside the US.
In the meantime, she has decided to compromise. Though she maintains that there is nothing wrong with openly breastfeeding in public, she said that after her contentious meeting with the stake president she went home and prayed about solutions. In the end, she decided to use the "two-shirt" method, which involves wearing multiple tops at once in order to cover the breast from both above and below during feedings. It's a solution that allows her to continue her relationship with a church she loves — despite disagreeing with her local leaders.
"I asked the Lord specifically, 'Do I need to give in to their demands or at least compromise?' and the Lord told me yes, that my spiritual well-being was at stake," she said. "I’m trying to stay strong and stay in the church because I love my church."