Legislation protecting breast-feeding mothers was passed unanimously Monday by the Seattle City Council, which cited the measure’s importance as a public-health issue.

“How do local communities take charge of a public-health issue?” asked Councilmember Bruce Harrell, chairman of the council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee. Harrell said that breast-feeding is first and foremost about the health of a baby, and that the ordinance “will provide civil-rights protection to every Seattle mother.”

The ordinance will allow mothers to breast-feed at any time, place or manner, making it illegal for restaurant or store management to tell them to leave or to cover the baby with a blanket or towel.

The ordinance expands on state protections afforded in 2009 to mothers breast-feeding in public. The new federal health-care act also provides protection for breast-feeding mothers.

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In public, “many women are not given the opportunity to breast-feed,” said Abigail Echo-Hawk, a member of the Seattle Women’s Commission. “While there is a state law, many women are not aware of this.”

Making it a local issue, she said, will bring more awareness to local business owners.

According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 13 percent of babies are still breast-fed exclusively after age 6 months. Supporters of the ordinance told the council that breast-fed babies have lower rates of infant mortality.

Michelle Sarju from Open Arms Perinatal Services, an organization that provides birthing services and outreach to pregnant women, said that despite the well-documented benefits of breast-feeding, it is still discriminated against.

“What we’re talking about on a fundamental level is a woman’s right to choose,” she said. “We should not tolerate a bias of one choice against a stamp of approval for another.”

The City Council agreed.

“This is an important issue,” Councilmember Jean Godden said. “And we’re glad to be voting on it.”

Mary Jean Spadafora: 206-464-2168 or mjspadafora@seattletimes.com