The Right To Deny Service

Categories: Business, Racism
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Published on: 2014.02.28

In my previous entry, I asked the question: which religion advocates denying service to someone based on sexual orientation? And I pointed out that Christianity (the religion with which I’m most familiar) does not advocate such a denial.

In the discussion that followed, I was reminded of the usual argument that “People have the right to determine with whom they wish to do business”. In other words, some say, any business can refuse service to anyone, for any reason. It’s a fundamental American right, they argue.

Despite the fact that such a right isn’t mentioned in the Constitution or Amendments, let’s explore that a bit, since so many people seem to hold the opinion.

Legally, no you can’t deny service for any reason. The Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, in Title II, says:

“All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.”

It does say that private clubs and businesses otherwise “not in fact open to the public” are exempt.

The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 uses very similar language to make sure that people with various disabilities aren’t refused service.

In several important court cases in recent decades, courts have held that if the business has “no legitimate business reason” (source), then service cannot be refused. For example, a sports bar could refuse service to a motorcycle club that wouldn’t remove its colors, because it feared a fight between rival organizations. But a restaurant could not refuse to seat a gay couple in a semi-private booth based merely on house rules, since there was no legitimate business reason preventing it.

In other cases, courts have supported the idea that disruptive behavior can be disallowed — because it deprives other customers of the services in question.

“Does the guaranteed right to public access mean the business owner’s private right to exclude is violated? For the most part, courts have decided that the constitutional interest in providing equal access to public accommodations outweighs the individual liberties involved.” (source)

There are still many reasons that business establishments can refuse service, of course.

* Patrons who are unreasonably rowdy or causing trouble
* Patrons that may overfill capacity if let in
* Patrons who come in just before closing time or when the kitchen is closed
* Patrons accompanied by large groups of non-customers looking to sit in
* Patrons lacking adequate hygiene (e.g. excess dirt, extreme body odor, etc.)

“In most cases, refusal of service is warranted where a customer’s presence in the restaurant detracts from the safety, welfare, and well-being of other patrons and the restaurant itself.” (source)

So it’s fairly easy to figure out, even for a non-attorney:

* It’s okay to refuse service to someone for non-discriminatory reasons, practical concerns, or when providing them service causes others to lose their quality of service. (I can kick you out of my movie theater without a refund if you’re preventing other movie-goers from enjoying the movie.)

* It’s not okay to refuse service to someone just because they belong to a particular group or class of people, even if that association is by choice.

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