Wednesday, October 28, 2015

West Palm Beach acts to ban retailer discrimination

City acts to ban retailer discrimination
By Tony Doris Palm Beach Post Staff Writer 
The impetus came from calls to the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council from young black men, that shopkeepers would follow them around stores or demand extra ID. The nickname for their assumed offense: "Shopping while Black." 

The gay and lesbian community also felt the sting of wedding cake bakers or photographers who refused to serve them.    

The push-back came Monday night with a unanimous final vote of the city commission: an amendment to West Palm Beach's human rights law, banning discrimination by an expanded list of "public accommodations," from restaurants and bars to schools, bakeries, hotels, theaters, spas, gyms and any other "establishment, service, place or building which offers, sells or otherwise makes available any good, service, facility, privilege or advantage."    

The amendment, approved without discussion, followed the passage of a similar change to Palm Beach County's law.  
"It's the biggest expansion in civil rights in the city and county in decades," Rand Hoch, president of the Human Rights Council, said Tuesday.    

Hoch said he is working with Sen. Joe Abruzzo, D-Wellington, to propose a state law with the same prohibitions. Florida laws are "really bad, really primitive" and may take years to change, he said.    

West Palm adopted its Equal Opportunity Ordinance in 1994 and has updated it from time to time. But the city law was modeled after civil rights legislation that dated from the 1960s and that focused on lunch counters, hotels, and bars and theaters but didn't reflect the changing face of discrimination, Hoch said.    

"All these years since then, when they've tweaked them, they've never really looked where discrimination was taking place. And it's taking place almost everywhere business occurs... We saw nothing in the laws in Palm Beach County that dealt with consumer racism," Hoch said.    

Now, he says, whether you're a black customer or a gay couple and someone says they are not going to bake your wedding cake, "that's illegal," Hoch said.   

It took about eight months for the city and county to consider and research the proposed changes. There was little resistance from the business community, he said. Extending those protections statewide could take three or four years, he said.   

The West Palm amendment represents the county's 101st legal change that deals with LGBT rights, by his count.    

"As a civil rights lawyer, this is one of the things I'm most proud of having West Palm Beach do, because it covers so many people." 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

West Palm Beach To Expand Equal Opportunity Law

Florida Agenda
October 14, 2015

WEST PALM BEACH–At Tuesday evening’s meeting of the West Palm Beach City Commissioners, they voted unanimously to expand the civil rights of minorities and women by amending the definition of “public accommodations” to include retail stores, schools, day care and senior centers, medical offices, funeral homes, bakeries, laundromats and virtually all other places of business within city limits. The County Commission unanimously adopted the same definition last month.

Both actions were taken at the request 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 local public officials enact more than 95 antidiscrimination laws and policies.

“When the local civil rights ordinances were (originally) enacted decades ago, elected officials focused only on those places where discrimination was most blatant – hotels, restaurants, bars and movie theaters,” said Rand Hoch, PBCHRC’s President and Founder.  “Unfortunately, discrimination is more widespread. Initially, our goal was to address consumer racism,” said Hoch, a retired judge.

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

“Allowing businesses to choose their clients based on prejudice deprives Americans of the freedom to walk into businesses that appear to be open to the general public and be treated equally,” said West Palm Beach City Commission President Sylvia Moffett. “If you hang out a shingle and get a license to do business, you should be required to provide the same service to all consumers.”

Lesbian and gay couples are also targets of public accommodation discrimination.

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 to gay and lesbian couples.

“Across America, gay and lesbian couples planning their weddings are now being refused service solely because of their sexual orientation,” said Hoch. “Under our new local ordinances, if a baker refuses to provide a cake for a gay couple’s wedding, he may be required to defend his discriminatory practices in court.”

While a majority of states have long prohibited discrimination of any kind in retail establishments, Florida is not one of them.  Therefore, the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council has asked State Senator Joseph Abruzzo (D-Wellington) to include the expanded definition of public accommodations in Senate Bill 120, a statewide civil rights bill he is sponsoring in the 2016 legislative session.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Palm Beach Post Editorial: Palm Beach County takes smart step forward on civil rights

Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015

The Palm Beach County Commission has done a very fine thing by voting, 6-0, to expand human rights protections to those who patronize a wide range of businesses.

The vote on Sept. 22 to extend the county’s longstanding anti-discrimination law well beyond hotels, restaurants and theaters was an act of basic decency. It was also shrewd economics. A county that promotes itself as a tourist destination should signal that people of all sorts are welcome.
We wouldn’t want to become the next Indianapolis, which saw its progressive image shaken when the Indiana Legislature passed a “religious freedom” law that was a thinly disguised swipe at gay people. It was that city’s business community that frantically pushed for that law to be rolled back.

More fundamentally, we applaud the County Commission for taking a stand that expresses our best sense of community. We want it known that we reject the notion that it’s OK to harass black youth in department stores or deny dental service to a would-be patient wearing a hijab.

Rand Hoch, founder and president of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, called the commission’s vote the most significant civil rights law in the county in a couple of decades — especially as there is no statewide law covering discrimination in retail stores.

It’s one measure of how far we’ve come in this respect that it didn’t feel much like a landmark. It barely registered in the news. Yet only a generation or two ago, battles over equal access to places of public accommodation tore much of the nation apart.

This is a county peppered with “Whites Only” signs, until those were consigned to history by the civil rights movement’s victories of the 1960s.

In 1973, Palm Beach County made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race in hotels, motels and restaurants. Over the years, the protected classes were expanded to include religion, national origin, disability, marital status, age, sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, as well.

But the ordinance was confined to places of lodging, food service or entertainment. Now, the definition of public accommodations includes retail stores, schools, day care and senior centers, medical offices, funeral homes, bakeries, laundromats, Palm Beach International Airport — just about every place of business in the county.

The Human Rights Council pushed for the law because it wanted to prohibit consumer racism in stores — “shopping while black,” the pernicious practice of eyeing darker-skinned customers with greater suspicion as they browse a store, or disproportionately accusing them of shoplifting.

Thanks to the commission’s vote, we now know the Palm Beach County answer to one of the burning questions of 2015: What if a bakery declined to make a cake for a gay couple’s wedding? Under the ordinance, the bakery may be subject to litigation, as well a fine of up to $50,000 for multiple violations. The guiding principle: Store owners can’t choose their customers based on prejudice.

The expanded ordinance is welcome news to Discover The Palm Beaches, the county’s marketing organization for travel. Discover has made conscious efforts to attract LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transvestite) business, hosting travel writers who focus on that audience and encouraging the increasing popularity of Palm Beach-area locations for same-sex weddings since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling this summer.

“We want to showcase that our destination is inclusive for all visitors,” Jose Pesquera, president and CEO, told The Post Editorial Board. “We want everyone to feel completely welcome. Our brand promise is that ‘genuine hospitality is a way of life,’ and that’s more than just a catch phrase for us. Every guest, regardless of lifestyle, race or origin, is valued and respected.”

Tourism is Palm Beach County’s largest industry, with an economic impact last year of a record $7.3 billion, according to Discover The Palm Beaches. With this ordinance, the county will be doing good — and doing well — at the same time.