The Right To Refuse Service? Businesses and Discrimination

We’ve all seen signs posted in restaurants and shops announcing that management “reserves the right to refuse service.” It’s one of those commonly used legal phrases – like “legal tender” or “pleading the fifth” – that most people have a vague understanding of – without really knowing what it means. How can businesses refuse service? Who can they refuse it to? More importantly, who can’t they refuse to serve?

Over the last several decades, the civil rights movement in the United States has led to important legal changes guaranteeing the rights of individuals to be free from discrimination based on sex, gender, race, religion, and a number of other factors. The Federal Civil Rights Act mandates “full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.”

Restaurants and stores qualify as “public accommodations” even if they’re a private business. As such, discrimination laws apply just as much on private property and to private businesses as they do in any public place.

Whether you post a sign or not, businesses never have the right to refuse or turn away customers because of their race, gender, age, nationality or religion. In addition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, several states have their own civil rights legislation designed to prevent discrimination. The Americans with Disabilities Act also prohibits discrimination in public accommodations, making it illegal to refuse service to individuals who are disabled or handicapped.

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When Can You Refuse Service?

While the right to refuse service is not a get out of jail free card allowing businesses to turn away people they don’t want to serve, there are some valid reasons for asking customers to leave. Individuals or groups who are causing trouble or being disruptive may be asked to leave, while restaurants or other businesses with a capacity limit can turn away customers to prevent this limit from being exceeded. Businesses can also refuse service to those who come in just before closing time or to those who are not making any purchases during their visit. There are various other examples – the key thing to note is that in each example, the decision to refuse service is not arbitrary or based upon an individual’s specific characteristics. Declining to serve someone has to be reasonable and justifiable. If customers are not properly dressed, you can ask that they leave, but if a person is wearing reasonable religious apparel and you dislike their beliefs, you can’t use that as an excuse to send them on their way. If there are safety concerns, or someone is harassing your staff members, then a business can refuse service. Likewise, if the way a person is dressed violates health codes, you cannot legally serve them, and if their clothing does not match your business’ clear standards – if someone wears jeans to a black tie dinner, for example – then you have a clear and justified reason for your refusal. For example, a court in California found that a bar was justified in refusing service to biker gangs who refused to remove their “colors” – marks of affiliation to certain gangs – because the bar had a legitimate concern that fights would break out. In this case, the refusal was specific and acted to protect a legitimate business interest.

Recent months have seen one particular conflict played out more and more frequently: the clash between businesses’ “right to refuse service,” the religious freedoms of business owners, and anti-discrimination laws protecting gay and lesbian couples. As same-sex marriage and civil unions have become legal in several states, and recognized by the federal government, several businesses have refused service to homosexuals on the grounds that they don’t agree with or support same-sex marriage. On one side, business owners claim the right to practice their religion in good conscience. On the other, same-sex couples are protected from discrimination in public accommodations. Liberty of conscience is protected by the First Amendment, but freedom from discrimination is protected by the Civil Rights Act. Like many areas of the law, the issue of discrimination and freedoms is constantly evolving, but the first few decisions in cases involving same-sex couples have found that businesses do not have the right to refuse service to gay or lesbian customers any more than they do to those of certain races or nationalities.

In the end, while individuals might have their own beliefs, places of public accommodation must be open to all patrons who follow reasonable rules (regarding behavior and dress, for example). Using sexuality as a factor in refusing service is simply too arbitrary in today’s world.

It might interest business owners to note that while discrimination against serving certain sets of people is illegal, providing discounts for specific groups – based on age, occupation, political affiliation or military service, for example – is perfectly acceptable, and discounts for students, the elderly, police officers, or veterans are often used to encourage business.

Equality under the law is one of the principles on which the United States was built, and businesses should strive at all times to ensure all customers receive fair and equal treatment.

Image via Shutterstock

  Discuss This Article

Comments: 14


  • Ron says:

    I understand not being able to refuse service based on religion, gender, or nationality. But when people make personal choices of lifestyle, and then seek out Christian companies to perform a service for them, which they know won’t likely happen, they sue them to make them cater to there chosen immoral lifestyle of lose their business all together. Skin color, gender, nationality is not chosen, sexual orientation is and is not a civil right issue. Christian companies are baited by the LGBT in order to demand acceptance of this lifestyle.

    • Lynette Smith says:

      Religion is chose by a person though. That specifically is in the civil rights movement of 1964 as a reason to not be able to refuse someone service. So now tell me why religious beliefs can’t be refused but sexual orientation can be. You stated that the LBGT community is trying to get you to accept it. This is not true they simply want to be treated with respect like everyone else. It’s ok to discrimate against someone because of their sexual orientation this is just ludacris really. If you are a religious man where in your religion is hate preached? Does God tell you to refuse gaya or lesbians into the church? I think not

      • S.P.Y. says:

        But the LGBT community refuses to acknowledge their freedom of choice to walk out and take their business elsewhere, instead using the government as a weapon to impose their beliefs onto someone else. By using Big Government to force bakeries to cater to them, it’s depriving the owners the right to religious practice, which is covered under the First Amendment. There are zero circumstances where religious freedom must be suspended just to satisfy a customer with whom the owner disagrees with. A Christian baker who views gay marriage as immoral cannot be forced to suspend their beliefs in order to participate in the event by making a customized cake. They are wholly willing to sell an available cake, yes, but having to bake a customized cake makes them active participants in the event, which would then have them suspend their religious beliefs (and, therefore, their First Amendment rights) all to make someone feel good. Rights never end where feelings begin; they only end where other rights are infringed.

        Long story short, find someone else to do business with instead of forcing a business to bow to your demands. They have no obligation to cater to people with beliefs in direct conflict with their own. Customers are free to choose the business that they are willing to work with. It’s a beautiful system called “free market capitalism.”

    • jan says:

      We are born with our sexual orientations as much as we are born with skin color, gender, and anything else. The problem Ron is that this is a back door way to discriminate against anyone; the GOP old divide and conquer as they steal everything that every working person has, and give it to corporations while distracting people with hateful, bigoted laws that they know won’t stand up Federally. This is blowing up in their faces BIG TIME, look at the backlash. This will cause them to lose billions of dollars from boycotts, and then when they fight it Federally and lose, billions of dollars MORE!! I could say I don’t serve bigots that are Christian, and not serve YOU, see how it works? More people are accepting of LGBT than not, so they really have opened up a can of worms that will hurt their state BIG TIME. But keep on thinking that this is about religious freedom and being a stupid bigot, as is your right. LOL!!

      • Mary says:

        Being gay or lesbian is not something you are born with. There is no “gay gene”. You show me a logical and highly regarded, peer reviewed study with empirical evidence to prove otherwise.

  • Zoe Brain says:

    “Skin color, gender, nationality is not chosen, sexual orientation is and is not a civil right issue.”

    So… when did you choose whether you’d be attracted to girls or boys?

    And would you have a problem with someone born Intersex – neither wholly male nor female, a matter of physical biology they were born with? Is that a “lifestyle choice” too?

    Of course religion is a matter of human rights. Yet do you say it’s not a lifestyle choice?

  • Doug says:

    So can a business/store refuse the right to serve me because I am grumpy in the morning? Can a business refuse the to serve me because their staff feel intimated because of my demeanor and professionalism and the way I carry myself?

    • Tom says:

      Yes. If there is a reasonable possibility that your demeanor indicates hostility that may endanger staff or patrons, or results in customers feeling unsafe or leaving, it is perfectly reasonable to refuse entry or service or the right to remain on the premises.

  • Jaconda says:

    I’m a Christian and a lawyer. The two work well together. As Christians, we are called upon to engage in social justice. Jesus taught that what we do to the “least of these” we do to him. It is unacceptable for Christians to engage in discrimination of any sort, including against those in the LGBT community. As a lawyer, I get to remind people of their obligations through the law without imposing my faith tradition.

    JW

    • aps says:

      JW: Very nicely said. :)

    • Bob says:

      Jaconda. Matthew 25:40 is often misinterpreted as you just did. “The least of these” refers to brothers and sisters in Christ only. However, a Christian should not show hate or bigotry to anyone. Additionally, If a person refuses to provide a service yet to be done based upon violation of his conscience in relation to his religious beliefs, he is protected by his 1st Amendment rights to free exercise of his religion. It is hateful to refuse to sell a gay person a birthday cake sitting in the display case based on the fact that the customer is gay. It is also hateful to refuse to bake a birhtday cake yet to be baked based solely on the fact that the customer is gay. It is NOT hateful, however, to refuse to bake a cake in celebration of an action that violates the business owner’s religious belief system in a way that forces the business owner to participate in the action thus defacto condoning such action. The business owner does not do this out of hate. He only does it to protect his ability to act in a way that his religion commands him to do. Asking the business owner to suspend his religious beliefs to provide this service is just plain wrong no matter how much you may disagree with the business owner.

  • Confused! says:

    So, based on this, how come a bouncer at a bar can deny entry to certain people? I.E. I was denied entry because my jeans had a design on them, when I saw other people with jeans similar to mine get in. The pattern was in no way offensive or obscene. Also, that same bouncer denied entry to the gentlemen behind me because there was “To many males inside already” IS THIS LEGAL?

  • S.P.Y. says:

    Several studies around the world looked at identical twins (one of which was openly gay) to see if homosexuality is genetic. Conclusion: it isn’t. Since identical twins have the exact same genetic code through and through, shouldn’t they both be gay? It simple: homosexuality is entirely a choice. Journalist John Stossel has interviewed people that were homosexual but then went straight. In one of his books, he interviewed a man who was gay, but ended up going straight and married an ex-lesbian. At the time of publishing, the couple had been happily married for six years. Any time, either one could have switched back to being gay, but no, they were happy and proud to having gone hetero. So no, homosexuality is not genetic; it’s a lifestyle choice.

  • Mark says:

    Post a sign that says “We reserve the right to refuse service due to public displays of affection.” That gives you the legal right to refuse service based on behavior. And if the behavior doesn’t present itself, then you should have no problem serving all people equally. In other words, when you enter my restaurant, EVERYBODY goes back in the closet….straight, gay, lesbian, bi….you will all keep it to yourselves or get kicked out. Nobody wants to worry about what their impressionable toddlers are going to see at a restaurant.

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