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.
While we’ll be the first to admit that a sign can make a powerful statement, signs like these do not instill the poster with a new set of rights. Here’s a breakdown of what is and isn’t covered by this familiar phrase.
Can business owners really refuse service to anyone?
Businesses with signs are subject to the same laws as restaurants without signs, meaning that any business owner reserves the right to refuse service to anyone so long as they do not fall into one of the protected classes of people covered under federal anti-discrimination laws. These classes include race, color, religion, national origin, age, sex, pregnancy, citizenship, familial status, disability, veteran status, and sexual orientation.
However, it’s important to note that the classes can differ from state to state. For example, some states only extend protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation to those in public employment, and as of 2011, there were just 16 states that prohibited discrimination based on both sexual orientation and gender identity.
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 believed 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 that 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, Satmar-run 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 a long 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. As of last month, the dispute was still being litigated in administrative court.
Door policies at nightclubs seem pretty discriminatory. How do they get away with it?
Unlike restaurants, which are indisputably places of public accommodation, nightclubs are known to cater to a specific clientele based on age and social status, so the rules on refusing service get a bit fuzzy. (Note: private clubs are not considered places of public accommodation and can set their own rules.) 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 establish an environment that is best for its image and, by extension, 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 in the men that bring in 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.