In restaurants and near cash registers, we’ve all seen signs that state: “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” But who can business owners really refuse service to? It’s certainly not just anyone.
Here’s a breakdown of what is and isn’t covered by this familiar phrase.
Can business owners really refuse service to anyone?
Under federal anti-discrimination laws, businesses can refuse service to any person for any reason, unless the business is discriminating against a protected class.
At the national level, protected classes include:
- Race or color
- National origin or citizenship status
- Religion or creed
- Disability, pregnancy, or genetic information
- Veteran status
Some states, like California, have more protected classes than the federal baseline. In addition to the above factors, California adds:
- Marital status
- Sexual orientation or gender identity
- Medical condition, or AIDS/HIV status
- Military or veteran status
- Political affiliations or activities
- Status as a victim of domestic violence, assault, or stalking
Contact your state attorney general or consult a lawyer for details on how your state handles its particular antidiscrimination law.
So who can businesses refuse service to?
These signs also don’t allow business owners to refuse service based on arbitrary reasons outside of the protected classes (though pointing out signs to cries of “No fair!” might avoid any further action on the part of spurned patrons). Instead, reasons must be legitimate enough to hold up in court. In general, refusal of service is justified in cases where a customer’s presence interferes with the safety and well-being of other patrons and the establishment itself. The most basic examples of this include patrons who are unreasonably rowdy, patrons lacking adequate hygiene, and those accompanied by large groups of non-customers.
Or consider this more nuanced example: In 2001, a California court ruled that a motorcycle club had no discrimination claim against a sports bar that denied members entry because they were wearing their club colors. The sports bar wasn’t denying the club members entry because they didn’t like their logo, but because management thought that allowing the colors to be worn could lead to fights with rival clubs inside the bar. Though no such fight had ever occurred, preventing hypothetical violence is considered a legitimate business interest.
And what about those “No shirt, no shoes, no service” signs?
If a business owner determines that lack of shoes or shirt poses a danger to the patron or other customers, or if it’s merely enough to make others uncomfortable, this sign is both legal and completely justified.
When such signs go beyond these more traditional clothing requirements or are geared toward a specific group, they’re bound to be controversial. In Brooklyn, Ultra-Orthodox Jewish businesses came under fire for posting modesty signs stating, “No shorts, no barefoot, no sleeveless, no low cut neckline allowed in this store.”
The city sued the group of stores located along a two-block stretch of a Satmar Hasidic section of Williamsburg saying, “It seems pretty clear that it’s geared toward women dressing modestly if they choose to come into the store, and that would be discrimination.” Hasidic advocates said that the signs were no different than dress codes at places like the Four Seasons. But allowing grocery and hardware stores to set the same standards as upscale restaurants and private clubs isn’t entirely logical, whether or not it’s legal.
Door policies at nightclubs seem pretty discriminatory. How do they get away with it?
While it can be unlawful to refuse service, it is not unlawful for most businesses to provide discounts based on certain characteristics in order to attract the desired clientele. This is why a club that overtly denied admittance to anyone but Koreans was fined $20,000 this year, but anti-feminist attorney Roy Den Hollander, who has been crusading against “Ladies’ Nights,” has been shot down since he started bringing suits to court in 2010.
Unfortunately, while it’s no mystery that clubs discriminate based on both gender and physical appearance, changes in this policy are unlikely to come about anytime soon. By enacting strict door policies, nightclubs aim to create an environment that best fits its image and, it follows, best for business. Gay bars, for example, can argue that too many straight people of the opposite sex will make patrons uncomfortable and hurt business, while the clubs that Hollander sued might claim that they give discounts to women to draw the men that bring in the most profits. Plus, doormen and bouncers can cite a number of reasons to deny access—from an imaginary guest list to the wrong shoes—making it difficult to prove legitimate discrimination.