Palm Beach County Expands Civil Rights Protections

Palm Beach County Commissioners have unanimously voted to expand civil rights protections for minorities by redefining "places of public accommodation" in the Palm Beach County Ordinance for Equal Opportunity to Housing and Places of Public Accommodation.

The vote, which passed in 6-0 decision, was held Tuesday morning. 

Specifically, the amendment will now mean that it is prohibited to discriminate not only in hotels or restaurants — which the original ordinance was written for — but also in retail stores and other places of business throughout the county. 

For more than 40 years, Palm Beach County has steadily strengthened civil rights ordinances that prohibit discrimination. In 1973, the county passed an ordinance that prohibits discrimination in hotels, motels, and restaurants. Over the years, those rights have expanded to include race, religion, national origin, disability, marital status, age, sexual orientation, and gender identity or expression. However, those public accommodation discrimination ordinances were limited to places offering lodging, food service, or entertainment. 

"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 that had occurred in very few places of commerce," explains Rand Hoch, president and founder of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council. "As we know, discriminatory acts are not limited to those few places." 

Now, thanks to Tuesday's vote, the county commissioners have expanded the definition of public accommodation to include retail stores, schools, daycare and senior centers, medical offices, funeral homes, bakeries, laundromats, and virtually all other places of business throughout the county.

"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," says Hoch. "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." 

Hoch and the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council approached the County Commission in January to address expanding the ordinance. The group's objective was to prohibit consumer racism in retail stores and to end the so-called "shopping while black" practice, a phrase used to describe racial profiling, or being denied service at a business because the customer is black.

"The experience of people of color being refused service — or given poor service — is not uncommon," the PBCHRC said in a statement. "'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."

The amendment also extends to those in the LGBT community who may face discrimination from businesses refusing service over sexual orientation. 

The legalization of same-sex marriage throughout several states recently has also brought upon examples of discrimination, where places like locally owned bakeries and wedding shops have refused to provide services for gay and lesbian couples looking to get married. 

Hoch explains that, under the new ordinance, a bakery that refuses a gay or lesbian couple service may be subject to not only litigation but a fine of up to $50,000. 

"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," Hoch says. 
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Chris Joseph
Contact: Chris Joseph