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.

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.

How to Handle Refusing Service

Refusing service to customers, particularly in scenarios where it’s legally and ethically justified, requires a delicate balance of firmness, tact, and awareness of legal obligations.

The most common, and legally permissible, scenario where service can be refused is in the case of intoxicated customers.

Handling such situations appropriately not only ensures the safety and comfort of other patrons and staff but also aligns with legal responsibilities, particularly in businesses like bars, restaurants, and clubs.

How to Refuse Service to Intoxicated Customers

  1. Know the Law: Familiarize yourself with local and state laws regarding serving alcohol. Most jurisdictions have laws that prohibit serving alcohol to visibly intoxicated individuals. This is not just a matter of policy, but of legal responsibility.
  2. Train Staff: Ensure that all staff members are properly trained to recognize the signs of intoxication. This can include slurred speech, impaired coordination, aggressive behavior, or a noticeable change in behavior.
  3. Approach with Tact: When refusing service, it’s important to approach the customer in a calm, non-confrontational manner. Speak in a clear, respectful tone, and explain your reasons for refusing service. For example, you might say, “I’m sorry, but I can’t serve you another drink because it’s against the law for me to serve alcohol to someone who’s already intoxicated.”
  4. Offer Alternatives: If appropriate, offer alternatives like non-alcoholic drinks, food, or assistance in getting a safe ride home. This shows that you’re concerned for their well-being, not just denying them service.
  5. Stay Firm but Respectful: Some customers may react negatively. Stay firm in your decision but continue to be respectful. Avoid escalating the situation and try to diffuse any tension.
  6. Enlist Help if Needed: If the situation escalates or the customer becomes aggressive, don’t hesitate to enlist help from other staff members or security. In extreme cases, you may need to call law enforcement.
  7. Document the Incident: Keep a record of the incident, including what happened, how it was handled, and the outcome. This documentation can be crucial in case of any legal repercussions or complaints.
  8. Follow Up: If the situation was particularly serious, follow up with staff to review how it was handled and discuss any improvements that could be made in handling similar situations in the future.

Refusing service to an intoxicated customer is not just about adhering to laws; it’s also about ensuring the safety and well-being of the individual, other customers, and your staff.

Handling such situations with professionalism and care is essential for the reputation and legal compliance of your business.

When is Refusing a Customer Illegal?

The right to refuse service is not absolute and must be navigated with careful consideration of various anti-discrimination laws. These laws exist at multiple levels – federal, state, and local – and they set out clear guidelines on when refusing service is illegal.

The cornerstone of these laws is the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This landmark federal law prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in public accommodations. Essentially, it ensures that customers receive equal treatment in places like restaurants, hotels, and stores.

A critical expansion of this law is Title VII, which explicitly forbids businesses from denying service to customers because they belong to one of these protected classes.

Recent legal developments have further broadened these protections.

For instance, sexual orientation and gender identity are now recognized as federally protected classes, following recent Supreme Court rulings. This means discrimination against LGBTQ individuals in places of public accommodation is also illegal under federal law.

State and local laws can introduce additional layers of protection. Some areas extend anti-discrimination protections to categories like genetic information or political affiliation, reflecting a broader interpretation of equality in public service.

A notable case that illustrates the complexities of these laws involved a Colorado baker who, citing religious beliefs, refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple.

While the Civil Rights Act did not at the time protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation, Colorado’s state laws did. The Supreme Court’s narrow ruling in favor of the baker in 2018 was not a blanket endorsement for such refusals.

By 2020, the Supreme Court had extended Title VII protections to the LGBTQ community, signifying a significant shift in federal law.

Another essential piece of legislation is the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in various domains, including public accommodations.

This means businesses must accommodate and cannot refuse service to people with disabilities, encompassing areas such as stores, restaurants, and medical facilities.

The bottom line is that refusing service to a customer simply because they belong to a specific protected group can be illegal. The complex and varied nature of discrimination laws at different jurisdictional levels can make it challenging for business owners to know all the specifics.

However, it’s crucial to be aware that actions perceived as discriminatory, even if based on customer behavior, might breach these laws. Before denying service, business owners should consider whether their actions could be interpreted as discrimination under these laws.

Wrapping Up

This marks the end of our guide regarding the right to refuse service.

Business owners should keep in mind 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.