OCEAN CITY — In a somewhat unprecedented move, the Ocean City Mayor and Council on Saturday took a proactive stand and passed an emergency ordinance prohibiting women from going topless in the same areas where men are allowed to go shirtless.
The Mayor and Council met at noon on Saturday to consider an ordinance that would prohibit women from going bare-chested on the beach, Boardwalk or any other public place in the resort. The elected officials unanimously passed the ordinance as an emergency ordinance, making it effective immediately.
The issue arose late last summer when a Maryland woman reached out to the Worcester County State’s Attorney’s Office, the town of Ocean City and its police department seeking an opinion on the legality of women going topless in the same areas where men are allowed to go shirtless under the Equal Protection Act. The Worcester County State’s Attorney’s Office and the OCPD in turn reached out to the Maryland Attorney General’s Office seeking an opinion on the issue, an opinion that is still forthcoming.
The issue boiled to a head earlier this week when the Ocean City Beach Patrol issued a directive to staffers they were to carefully document any citizen complaints about female going topless on the beach, but were not to approach any woman exercising her perceived rights to go bare-chested. The OCBP directive ignited a backlash of negative publicity from many citizens who interpreted it as a signal female toplessness on the beach was suddenly becoming an accepted behavior. In the interest of clarifying the town’s position and settling the issue, for the time being at least, the Mayor and Council passed the comprehensive emergency ordinance on Saturday.
It’s important to note the Maryland Attorney General’s opinion on the issue is still pending, but the local ordinance passed by the Mayor and Council on Saturday supersedes any state law in terms of enforcement in Ocean City. Councilman Wayne Hartman made the motion to pass the ordinance and it was approved unanimously.
“I think there is precedence in Maryland when the law was passed regarding breast-feeding in public,” he said. “The fact we’re here on a Saturday afternoon shows the importance of this for the town of Ocean City.”
After the ordinance passed unanimously, a motion was made to pass it as an emergency ordinance, making it effective immediately. Passing an emergency ordinance requires the concurrence of the mayor, and Mayor Rick Meehan was glad to oblige.
“This ordinance provides clarity as to the position of the town of Ocean City that we will not allow women to be topless on our beach or any public property within the city limits,” he said. “We have never been a topless beach and we will not become a topless beach. For these reasons, I will approve the passage of this ordinance as an emergency ordinance.”
Essentially, Meehan said Ocean City remains sensitive to individual rights, but the collective rights of the countless visitors to the resort outweighed those individual rights on this specific issue.
“Ocean City has never been a topless beach,” he said. “Unfortunately, due to the recent inquiries made to the State’s Attorney’s Office, media reports and inaccurate information that has been circulated, we have received hundreds of calls and emails from residents and visitors expressing their concern over this issue. Each year, thousands of families visit our beach to relax in an atmosphere free of this type of activity. We respect their rights.”
The language in the ordinance carefully spells out the town’s position.
“There is no constitutional right for an individual to appear in public nude or in a state of nudity,” the ordinance reads. “It does not implicate either the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the right to privacy, or a protected liberty interest. It lacks any communicated value that might call for First Amendment protection, nor does it implicate the right or privacy or the right to be alone. One does not have right to impose one’s lifestyle on others who have an equal right to be left alone.”
The ordinance goes on to state a female’s desire to go topless on the public beach makes it subject to government regulation in this case.
“Whatever personal right one has to be nude or in a state of nudity, that right becomes subject to government interest and regulation when one seeks to exercise it in public,” the ordinance reads. “A gender-based distinction challenged under the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution is gauged by an important government interest this is substantially accomplished by the challenged discriminatory means.”
The ordinance states protecting the public’s collective interest supersedes individual interests in this case.
“Protecting the public sensibilities is an important governmental interest based on the indisputable difference between the sexes,” the ordinance reads. “Further, a prohibition against females baring their breasts in public, although not offensive to everyone, is still seen by society as unpalatable.”
From the beginning, advocates for female bare-chestedness have opined the same standard should be applied for men and women, but the ordinance passed on Saturday runs counter to that.
“The equal protection clause does not demand that things that are different in fact be treated the same in law, nor that a government pretend there are no physiological differences between men and women,” the ordinance reads.
The ordinance spells out the prohibition on female toplessness and prescribes the potential fines.
“It shall be unlawful for any person to be on the beach, Boardwalk, public parks, parking lots, streets, avenues, alleys or any other public place with the person’s specified anatomical areas nude or in a state of nudity,” the ordinance reads. “Any person who is found to be in any violation of this article shall be deemed to be guilty of a municipal infraction and be subject to a fine of up to $1,000.”