On Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. in Room 415 of the Legislative Office Building, state lawmakers will tackle a pressing, if not urgent, issue: No, not the rollback of unemployment insurance benefits and Medicaid, not the dismantling of public education and oversight commissions. And not guns.

They want to clarify the indecent exposure law to make it a misdemeanorand in some cases, a felonyfor a woman to publicly expose any part of her areola and/or nipple.

Breastfeeding is exempt from the laweven this crew of pompous conservatives doesn’t want to face an angry army of lactating mothers. Also exempt are men’s nipples and areolas, which can be paraded around with impunity. Unsurprisingly, the bill does not address the breast rights of transgender individuals.

Some political observers scoff, saying House Bill 34 is a legislative sleight of hand to divert our attention from more important issues. In part, that’s true. But the breast bill is very important. Besides being discriminatory, it cuts to the essence of what drives our conservative legislators: Regressive, puritanical and punitive, they want to inflict their “values” on the poor, gays and lesbians, minorities, women, the educatedanyone who they believe threatens their power.

Areolas and nipples apparently are a threat. Co-sponsored by Rep. Tim Moffitt, a Buncombe County Republican, the bill is a response to the Go Topless movement in the den of depravity, Asheville. Last summer, according to Mountain Xpress, several dozen women bared their breasts in the city’s Pack Square to show support for the constitutional right to appear topless in public. (Currently, there is no state or Asheville law prohibiting women from baring their breasts.)

Because nipples and areolas are defined in the bill as “private parts … external organs of sex and excretion,” it would be a misdemeanor to air them in public places, except where “same-sex exposure is incidental to a permitted activity,” such as the locker room at the gym.

And adult women could get busted for a felony if they willfully expose their nipples or areolas “in the presence of any person under 16 for the purpose of arousing or gratifying sexual desire.”

Anyone older than 16 understands that it takes very little to excite teenage boys; they can get aroused brushing against the dishwasher. As for girls, allow me to briefly reminisce about my 13-year-old self: There I am, selling sweet corn at the family’s roadside stand, when Reid, a hirsute, bare-chested 19-year-old, emerges from the field, sweaty and covered in pollen. I was glad to see him.

Someone recently commented on the INDY Week website in response to last week’s editorial cartoon that men don’t want to see “angry old hippy bitches with sagging, hairy tits.” If that’s the standard of acceptability we’re imposing, then please, men, with your old, sagging, hairy titsI, modest of breast, have seen them, and you out-endow me by at least a cup sizeput on a shirt. Because we don’t want to see all that.

Seriously, though, the bill falsely assumes breasts are always instruments of sexual seduction. Yet when women are thinking, working and talking, breasts just sit there. The bill makes women (but not my fieldworker friend, Reid) responsible for the sexual arousal of others. This attitude is similar to that held by conservative religious sects that blame womenand thus want to cover themfor allegedly inciting men’s desires, as if men, helpless to control their libidos, wander the streets, penises loaded and at the ready. When men are thinking, working and talking, penises, like breasts, just sit there.

Make no mistake, the religious right is driving this bill. The Rev. Mark Creech, a conservative pastor from North Carolina, recently posted a screed on Facebook jesting (allegedly) that he favors it because:

1) “Most women are against such nudity because women never like to go someplace where all the women are wearing the same thing.”

2) “If women are allowed to parade around topless, it would essentially end the practice of blind dating.”

3) “It would put a lot of Peeping Toms out of business.”

There is so much wrong with that line of “joking” I barely know where to begin: I wouldn’t speculate about the Rev.’s experience with women’s breasts, but he needs to be informed that no two are the same, not even on the same woman, so we wouldn’t all be wearing the same thing.

And contrary to Creech’s apparent narrow experience, men don’t always date women on the basis of breast size.

And would it be a bad idea to put Peeping Toms out of business?

Creech goes on to argue our culture has corrupted the idea of equal rights, which “have come to mean something ludicrous.” He cites reproductive rights, same-sex marriage and women in combat as examples of how the Founding Fathers’ notion of equality has gotten way out of hand.

This is what’s way out of hand: A measure like House Bill 34 passes for governance under the new regime. And that regime wants all of us to conform to their worldviewone that is driving even more pernicious legislation that will harm millions of North Carolinians.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Tit for tat.”