On April 28, Palm Beach County’s school board voted unanimously to amend their Equal Opportunity Policy and its Policy Prohibiting Discrimination and Harassment to include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity or expression.” Both policies are expected to be formally ratified at a public hearing within a few weeks.
Palm Beach County Human Rights Council (PBCHRC) is a non-profit organization that seeks to end discrimination towards the LGBT community in the county, founded by Rand Hoch, a Civil Rights Attorney. Since 1991 PBCHRC has asked the county’s school board to prohibit discrimination against their gay employees.
Hoch says in 1991 there were still individuals on the school board who wished to reserve the right to discriminate against gay or lesbian teachers. The council thought it was an ideal time to fight for these protections as Palm Beach County had just passed a fair-housing policy to protect gays and lesbians. Yet, this was a more sensitive issue because of students being minors and being around LGBT teachers.
“The board didn’t want the words “sexual orientation” in any school district policy. Instead of adding in those enumerations they made an absurd compromise. Race, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status and handicap were all removed from the school board’s nondiscrimination policy,” said Hoch.
By removing the specific areas of discrimination the school board hoped to create a blanket against discrimination of any kind. Hoch finds this absurd because the purpose of such policies is to educate the public about what is prohibited in any work place, whether it’s a school board or a major corporation. The school board’s resolution was short lived however, thanks to a 1996 Supreme Court ruling in landmark gay rights case Romer vs. Evans.
“Enumeration is the essential device used to make the duty not to discriminate concrete and to provide guidance for those who must comply,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Rather than insert anything about sexual discrimination or identity into their anti-bias policies they reverted back to the original list. They flatly refused to add sexual orientation.
Since 2002 the Council has been challenging the School Board again. By 2003 the school board did adopt a policy protecting students and employees from harassment based on sexual orientation. In 2006 they went one step further and included a commercial non-discrimination clause, that barred doing business with any entity that discriminated based on the traditional enumerations as well as sexual orientation. By 2009 that list would include gender identity or expression.
“Until now,” added Hoch, “the school board showed little interest in a policy that would impose the identical requirements on the School District of Palm Beach County.”
As conservatives and the religious right argue against ENDA, the proposed Employment Anti-Discrimination Act which is making daily headlines in DC, this is an important victory. Especially for Florida, which on the state level does not have any policies protecting people in cases of sexual or gender-identity expression.
“In Florida there are less than ten counties that have protection for teachers and staff in terms of sexuality and gender expression,” Hoch added triumphantly. “Good things come to those who wait and we have waited a long time.”