SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Women will have to cover their nipples in public but men can continue to go shirtless in the southwest Missouri city of Springfield, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. District Court Judge Beth Phillips ruled Wednesday that the city’s current public indecency ordinance didn’t violate the Constitution by allowing men, but now women, to show their nipples.
The controversy began when two women affiliated with an organization called “Free the Nipple — Springfield Residents Promoting Equality ” held a topless rally to dispute a city ordinance that required women to cover their nipples. After that rally, the city council passed a stricter ordinance that required more of the female breast to be covered.
Although the city council repealed the more restrictive ordinance, the American Civil Liberties Union sued in October 2015 on behalf of the two women, The Springfield News-Leader reported . The ACLU argued that the indecency ordinance violates the Equal Protection Clause, which requires men and women to be treated as equals.
Phillips disagreed, saying in her order that “There is no denying that men’s and women’s breasts are different. Nor is there any dispute that our society has long considered them to be different, particularly as related to matters of decency.”
Treating genders differently is constitutional if it supports important governmental objectives, Phillips said.
“The City has a legitimate interest in promoting decency and protecting morals by prohibiting public nudity, and this interest constitutes an important governmental objective,” she said.
The judge’s ruling prohibited the city for ever re-enacting the more restrictive ordinance, which made it illegal for women to publicly show parts of their breasts beyond the nipple.
Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri, said the organization is deciding whether to appeal.
In September, the court ordered Springfield to pay $750 each to the two plaintiffs. The city also agreed to pay attorneys’ fees and court costs, which will amount to about $14,600 if the ACLU does not appeal, Assistant City Attorney Tom Rykowski said.
“It’s a reasonable outcome to a contentious issue,” Rykowski said. “It may not please everyone, but it should resolve the issues we have for now.”
Rothert said the ACLU is disappointed that the current indecent exposure ordinance will stand but he said the decision “is a step in the right direction.”
“It’s still disappointing that the city trusts men and boys to decide when their nipples should be visible in public, but does not have the same respect for women and girls,” Rothert said.
Information from: Springfield News-Leader, http://www.news-leader.com