SALT LAKE CITY - A Utah woman is fighting criminal charges after her stepchildren saw her topless in her own home.
Her attorneys say if Tilli Buchanan is convicted she may have to register as a sex offender for 10 years.
They argue that the law is unfair because it treats men and women differently for baring their chests. They are asking a judge to overturn her misdemeanor lewdness charges and declare that part of the law unconstitutional.
Prosecutors counter that nudity is commonly understood to include women’s breasts in American society and that courts have upheld laws based on morality.
“It was in the privacy of my own home,” she said after a court hearing Tuesday where a judge reserved decision on Buchanan’s guilt or innocence. “My husband was right next to me in the same exact manner that I was, and he’s not being prosecuted.”
Buchanan, 27, said she and her husband who live in a suburb of Salt Lake City had taken off their shirts to keep their clothes from getting dusty while they worked in their garage in late 2017 or early 2018.
When the children, ages 9 through 13, walked in, she “explained she considers herself a feminist and wanted to make a point that everybody should be fine with walking around their house or elsewhere with skin showing,” her lawyers said in court documents.
Buchanan was charged with three counts of misdemeanor lewdness involving a child in February. It came after child welfare officials began an investigation involving the children unrelated to Buchanan.
The children’s mother reported the incident to authorities because she was “alarmed,” authorities said.
Buchanan’s husband was not charged.
A global movement advocating for the rights of women to go topless, called the Free the Nipple campaign, has seen mixed success fighting similar ordinances in other parts of the country.
“It has incredibly serious consequences,” said Leah Farrell, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah who argued Buchanan’s case. While people might have different feelings about women’s and men’s bodies, the use of the criminal justice system to enforce them isn’t appropriate, she said.
Supporters celebrated in February when the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ruling blocking a Fort Collins, Colorado, law against women going topless in public.
The justices sided with activists who argued that the ban treated women and men differently under law. The court has jurisdiction over federal cases from several states, including Utah, but authorities have said the ruling doesn’t immediately invalidate other local laws.
One of the Fort Collins plaintiffs, Brit Hoagland, said the Utah case is more unjust because Buchanan was inside her own home.
“Women should not be seen as inherently sexual, let alone criminal, for doing something men do casually all the time,” said Hoagland, who identifies as nonbinary, which means her gender identity is not strictly male or female.
Topless bans have been upheld elsewhere. The New Hampshire Supreme Court in February affirmed the conviction of three members of the Free the Nipple campaign who were arrested for going topless on a beach in 2016.
A public indecency law in Missouri also was upheld in 2017, and a court allowed a San Francisco public nudity ban to remain on the books in 2013.