For anyone who has ever visited a store or a restaurant, chances are that you’ve seen signs up on walls proclaiming, “no shirt, no shoes, no service,” or “we reserve the right to refuse service” or some variation on those statements. Private businesses often have these signs up to remind customers that service isn’t guaranteed to just anyone, especially those considered “undesirable” who won’t follow a business’s rules such as wearing a shirt and a pair of shoes.
It may seem silly to think that a business would have to explicitly state that customers must wear shoes and a shirt to be served, but a business’s right to refuse service has a long and somewhat ugly history involving blatant discrimination, racism, and homophobia. Fast forward to today and discriminatory practices by certain businesses still make headlines, leading many people to wonder about the laws around the refusal of service and what reasons are acceptable to eject customers.
For many stores and restaurants, refusing service to certain patrons is a daily occurrence that sees them eject people for a variety of reasons. At bars and restaurants, ejecting people and refusing to serve them for being too drunk is not only a regular part of their nightly routine but also part of their legal obligations prohibiting them from overserving customers’ alcohol. Meanwhile, at retail stores, nail salons, banks, and other brick-and-mortar operations, customers and clients often find themselves ejected for any number of reasons including being rude and verbally abusive towards staff members.
Business owners’ rights and the refusal of service to undesirable customers
While it’s perfectly reasonable to think that businesses should be allowed to refuse service to rude and unruly customers, there are constitutional and legal ramifications involved when a business refuses to serve someone based on discriminatory grounds. In the United States, segregationist laws meant that some restaurants and other businesses were for “whites only,’ until the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.
After that, businesses that were open to the public were no longer allowed to refuse service to people based on their sex, religion, their race, or their nationality. In addition, the Americans with Disabilities Act provided people with disabilities a set of similar protections as the Civil Rights Act did for racialized people, prohibiting businesses from denying services to people based on a customer’s disability.
Even with these legislative changes, though, many businesses still attract negative publicity for their refusals of service to certain individuals. There are numerous examples, including bakeries refusing to bake wedding cakes for same-sex couples or pharmacies refusing to provide contraception to customers based on so-called “moral grounds.”
In the case of the bakery, it was a business in Colorado that refused service to a gay couple, which culminated in a years-long legal battle that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court sided with the business since the Civil Rights Act does not protect the rights of people based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Colorado state law, however, does prohibit businesses from denying services based on sexual orientation, coming into conflict with the federal civil rights statute.
Dress codes, religious liberty, political affiliation and the right to refuse service
Depending on where you live, the rules around businesses refusing service may slightly vary, but most democratic societies have outlawed discriminatory practices based on a number of protected grounds including sexual orientation, gender, political affiliation, religion, and race. But despite laws meant to stamp out bigotry and discrimination, that hasn’t stopped extreme cases from going to court. There was the case of a county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue a same-sex couple a marriage license because of her own religious beliefs, which landed her in contempt of court.
Businesses with dress codes, meanwhile, have also found themselves at the centre of controversy for turning people away for not wearing the right clothes. In New York, which has a state law against discrimination on several protected grounds, there was a case of a man kicked out of a bar for wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat.
A business’s right to refuse service
He claimed he was unfairly denied service because of his political beliefs, while the bar owner claims he was abusive towards the establishment’s employees. New York state law doesn’t consider clothing or political affiliation a protected ground against discrimination, and the man’s lawsuit against the bar failed.
The thing is, however, many instances of people being denied service isn’t simple and black and white with a clear victim on one side and a villain on the other. In Canada, back in 2018, a café that allowed customers to play with several resident cats refused to allow a wheelchair-bound patron in after citing safety concerns for the animals.
The owners claimed that cats had been hurt in the past by wheelchair users and stood by their refusal to allow the boy in unless he left his chair outside. While their concerns for animal welfare were laudable and perhaps valid, they failed to try to make accommodations that would’ve allowed the boy to enjoy the café without putting any animals in danger, putting them on the wrong side of the human rights code.
Can a business refuse service for no reason?
Unique circumstances often make it less than easy to determine whether a business is within its rights to refuse service or is unlawfully discriminatory against a customer. In Australia, which has similar anti-discrimination laws to the U.S. and Canada, the government lays out several scenarios online that deal with permitted and prohibited grounds for refusing service.
For example, it’s not against the law to offer specialized counselling or training services for young people or women. Insurance companies are also allowed to use data to calculate higher premiums for young drivers that are at higher risk of getting into accidents.
Australian law also allows dress codes, and for businesses to refuse entry to disruptive customers who have caused them problems in the past. Moreover, a theme park can refuse to allow a short person to ride a rollercoaster with a height requirement due to safety protocols. However, a campsite can’t refuse to book a group of high school students because they think young people are loud, just as a hotel can’t refuse to allow a same-sex couple to book a room because a hotel employee is “uncomfortable.”
Businesses are indeed allowed to refuse service to customers who are disruptive or abusive toward employees, but private businesses also must be mindful of human rights laws that outlaw discriminatory practices. Those that fail to do so often find themselves in firestorms of controversy and bad publicity, which is, of course, bad for business.
If you have other questions about if businesses can refuse service, speak to a business lawyer.
Author: Alistair Vigier of Clearwaylaw.com