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Law protects mothers’ right to nurse in public

OLYMPIA – Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a law Wednesday that declares that the civil right of a mother to breast-feed her child in public places is protected by Washington’s antidiscrimination law.

“This new law will eliminate one more obstacle that women are faced with day in and day out,” said state Rep. Tami Green, D-Lakewood. It will take effect in 90 days.

Washington is already one of at least 25 states that have passed laws explicitly declaring that breast-feeding or expressing breast milk does not constitute indecent exposure. In a move intended to prod businesses into making more accommodations for breast-feeding mothers, the state also has a law allowing employers to say they’re “infant friendly” if they allow flexible work schedules and clean facilities for moms.

The new law protects against discrimination by declaring that women can breast-feed a child “in any place of public resort, accommodation, assemblage or amusement.” That includes restaurants, hotels, motels, stores, malls, theaters, concert halls, parks, fairs, libraries, schools, hospitals and government offices.

Complaints would be investigated by the state Human Rights Commission. Based on results involving similar laws in Vermont and Hawaii, the commission estimates that it will field four to five complaints a year. It says that Washington has a high percentage of breast-feeding mothers, particularly among immigrants and low-income women.

In House and Senate hearings, no one testified against House Bill 1596. But proponents said women continue to be asked to leave public places while breast-feeding.

Such hassles, they said, may contribute to sharp drop-offs in breast-feeding.