Palm Beach County Strengthens Civil Rights Protections

(GayWebSource.com) (West Palm Beach, Florida) –  At this morning’s meeting, Palm Beach County Commissioners voted unanimously to expand civil rights protections for minorities by amending the definition of “places of public accommodation” in the Palm Beach County Ordinance for Equal Opportunity to Housing and Places of Public Accommodation.

“When I looked at the antidiscrimination ordinances that had been in effect in Palm Beach County over the years, it became clear that our law needed to be updated to better protect minorities,” said County Commissioner Mary Lou Berger. “In light of all that is happening with race relations across our nation, this is the appropriate time for the County Commission to take a strong, proactive stand against discrimination.”

While a majority of states have long prohibited discrimination of any kind in retail establishments, Florida is not one of them.

“Since there is no statewide law covering discrimination in retail stores, the ordinance passed today is clearly the most significant civil rights law passed in Palm Beach County in decades,” said Rand Hoch, the retired judge who provided the County Attorney’s office with the language used in the ordinance.

Hoch is President and Founder of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council (PBCHRC), the County’s most prolific civil rights organization. Over the past twenty-five years, PBCHRC has succeeded in having public officials enact more than 90 local antidiscrimination laws and policies.

Palm Beach County first enacted an ordinance to prohibit discrimination in places of public accommodation in 1973.  Over the years, the ordinance has been rewritten to include discrimination based on race, sex, color, religion, national origin, disability, familial status, sexual orientation, age, marital status, and gender identity or expression.

However, for more than three decades, instances of public accommodation discrimination were strictly limited to only those which occurred in places offering lodging, food service or entertainment in the ordinance.

“The ordinance traced its roots back to civil rights laws written in the 1960s when it was legal to have ‘Whites only’ hotels, restaurants and bars and the County Commissioners only addressed inequities had occurred in very few places of commerce.” said Hoch. “As we know, discriminatory acts are not limited to those few places.”

“No one should be subjected to the humiliation of being denied service in a store open to the general public because of his or her race.” said County Commissioner Priscilla Taylor.

“Allowing store owners to choose their customers based on prejudice deprives shoppers of the freedom to walk into a store that seems to be open the general public and get served like everybody else,” said Hoch.

At today’s meeting, the County Commissioners widely expanded the definition of public accommodation to include retail stores, schools, day care and senior centers, medical offices, funeral homes, bakeries, laundromats and virtually all other places of business throughout the county.

“When the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council asked the County Commission to expand the definition of places of public accommodation last January, our main priority was to prohibit consumer racism in retail stores – a practice known as ‘shopping while Black,'” said Hoch.

The experience of people of color being refused service – or given poor service – is not uncommon.  “Shopping while Black” also includes black customers being followed by store clerks, wrongly detained, steered away from certain products, and being asked for additional forms of identification regarding credit applications.

President Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey,  Condoleezza Rice, and other well-know Black Americans have publically discussed their humiliating experiences of shopping while black.

“There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store,” President Obama said after the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin. “That includes me.”

“Public accommodations must be open to all people equally. If you hang out a shingle and get a license to do business with the general public, you should be required to provide the same service to all of the general public – and that includes gays and lesbians.” said Hoch.

Since same-sex marriage has become legal, a handful of companies in the wedding industry in Colorado, Indiana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont and Washington have  refused to provide services gay and lesbian couples.

“Gay and lesbian couples planning their weddings are being refused service solely because of their sexual orientation,” said Hoch.  “Under the new Palm Beach County ordinance, if a bakery refuse to provide a cake for a gay or lesbian couple’s wedding, that baker may be faced with litigation, a fine of up to $50,000 and payment of attorneys’ fees.”

The new ordinance does take into account the special rights of churches and private clubs by exempting both religious and distinctly private organizations from the ordinance.

“Churches may be allowed to  exclude people of other faiths.  Private clubs may be allowed to continue to deny membership based on race and religion,” said Hoch. “However, in Palm Beach County, businesses engaged in commerce will no longer be allowed to refuse service based on a person’s race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or any other protected classes.”

 

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Palm Beach County Human Rights Council

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