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.