Concerned that its family-friendly beaches would become a destination for bare-breasted sunbathers this summer, the Ocean City Council held an emergency meeting Saturday to pass a public nudity ban.
"We will not allow women to be topless on our beach or on any public property within city limits," Mayor Rick Meehan said on his Facebook page after the council unanimously approved the ordinance.
Topless sunbathing has never been of feature of Maryland's popular vacation spot. But it suddenly became an issue when authorities in Ocean City directed the beach patrol not to confront bare-chested women or ask them to cover up.
The edict was the result of a legal challenge filed by a beachgoer. She argued that if men can go sans tops, then women can, too.
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The newly approved ordinance makes public nudity a municipal infraction punishable by a fine of $1,000 and once again enforceable by the local beach patrol. A ruling by the Maryland Attorney General's Office on the state's indecent-exposure laws is still pending.
Chelsea Covington, a self-described "topfreedom" advocate who argued that Maryland law allows women to go bare-chested in public, could not be reached immediately on Saturday. But in a recent interview she said she was advocating for "equality under the law."
"It's about equality, it's about positivity, and it's against body shaming and the forced sexualization of the female form,"she said.
The legal dust-up has rankled the resort town along the Eastern Shore. Jessica Waters, a spokeswoman for the city, said the council and the mayor wanted to provide clarity and to respond to a wave of concern from visitors that Ocean City would become a topless beach.
"We have thousands of families that visit Ocean City each year, and we take very seriously the responsibility of providing an atmosphere where they feel that they can bring their children to relax and enjoy the beach and boardwalk without exposure to any female toplessness."
Maryland law is not entirely clear when it comes to the question of whether women are expressly prohibited from baring their breasts in public.
Beach patrol employees in Ocean City had been directed to document complaints about topless bathers by filling out "minor incident" forms, but were specifically told not to "approach the topless woman, even if requested to do so by the complainant or other beach patrons."
It is not just Ocean City where the topless issue is kicking up sand.
Legal challenges to local policies are percolating through courts nationwide, with varying results.
Maryland's criminal code addressing indecent exposure says only that "a person convicted of indecent exposure is guilty of a misdemeanor and is subject to imprisonment not exceeding 3 years or a fine not exceeding $1,000 or both." But the code does not clearly say being a woman with a bare chest is indecent, Covington said, and common law surrounding indecent exposure typically references the display of genitals.
Covington, who runs a blog called "Breasts Are Healthy," wrote her legal argument after asking police and city officials about two years ago for clarity and training that would allow women to sunbathe topless without interference. She argued that prohibiting women but not men from doing so violates equal protection laws.
"We need some official declaration so that people aren't harassed and so the police know what to do," said Covington, 29. "Officers can only do what they're trained, and if they aren't given proper training, they could make false arrests or false fines."
Raquel Coombs, a spokeswoman for Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D), said the office was asked by the Worcester County state's attorney, Beau Oglesby, to clarify Maryland law in a formal opinion.
"We will be drafting one, and I expect it to be released soon," Coombs said Thursday.
Female breast baring has caught the attention of courts across the country.
In February, a federal judge in Colorado blocked the city of Fort Collins from enforcing its ordinance that prohibits women, but not men, from exposing their chests in public.
The policy, the judge found, violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment that generally prohibits the government from discriminating between the sexes. The city has appealed the decision in the case, which was brought by Free the Nipple, a gender-equity advocacy group.
In Illinois, however, a federal judge last year dismissed a lawsuit against Chicago filed after police charged a topless protester with indecent exposure. The woman was participating in a "GoTopless Day" event organized by a nonprofit group that advocates for the right of women to appear bare-chested in public, and she said the city's policy violated her freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment. In dismissing the case, the judge noted that the Supreme Court has held that "public nudity is not inherently expressive."
But it is rarely an issue and typically occurs among foreign visitors who are more accustomed to nude beaches, said Lindsay Richard, a spokeswoman for the Ocean City Police Department. In most cases, people put their tops back on when asked, she said. "We're very much looking forward to more clarity on the indecent-exposure law from the Maryland Attorney General's Office just so our officers have a more clear and concise direction on how to move forward with certain incidents."