Answer: Not Always
Many businesses have signs on the wall which read “We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to Anyone,” but that is not necessarily true. The Federal Civil Rights Act guarantees the right to “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." The Americans with Disabilities Act guarantees the right of public accommodation to physically and mentally disabled citizens. Sex, age, veteran status, genetic information and citizenship are also federally protected. Refusing service to anyone based solely on one of these federally-protected classes is definitely illegal. Setting those factors aside, we are oten asked whether businesses have the right to refuse patrons based on their appearance, attitude, sexual orientation or other non-federally protected factors.
The answer to that question is much less clear. The law against discrimination in public accommodations is in a constant state of change at both the federal and state levels. Many states have passed their own Civil Rights Acts which provide broader protections. In cases in which the patron is not a member of a federally-protected class, the question generally turns on whether the business had a specific interest in refusing service (i.e., the patron’s behavior was interfering with operations or jeopardizing the safety of employees or other customers) or if instead the business's refusal of service was purely arbitrary. Broader protection is typically granted from arbitrary discrimination by business owners. Depending on the allegation, complaints can be filed with the city, the state or any of several dozen federal agencies, and each level of government has different rules about when and how to file.
In the past few years, legislation to allow individuals or businesses to refuse service based on their own religious views (many specifically protecting religious disapproval of non-heterosexual orientations) has been proposed in over 15 states. Arizona SB 1062 and Georgia HB 1023, the “Preservation of Religious Freedom Act," have both in particular received a great amount of attention and criticism for being discriminatory. Arizona’s bill was passed by their Republican-controlled state legislature but vetoed by then-governor Jan Brewer (R). Georgia’s bill was withdrawn in February of 2014.
There have been many examples in the news recently related to refusal of service:
Dr. Vesna Roi, a Michigan pediatrician, refused to treat a baby with lesbian parents.
Sweet Cakes by Melissa, an Oregon bakery, was ordered to pay $150,000 to a gay couple after refusing to bake them a wedding cake.
Marjorie Silva, owner of Azucar Bakery in Colorado, refused to decorate a cake with anti-gay messaging and imagery and is now the subject of a state civil rights investigation.
Jan Morgan, operator of a “Muslim-free” gun range in Arkansas, is drawing criticism from multiple groups seeking federal action against her.
Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Washington state, is appealing fines levied against her and her business after she refused to sell flowers to a gay couple for their wedding.
The Bottom Line
Georgia business owners can refuse to serve customers, but must be careful that the denial of service is based on customer behavior, decorum or the health and safety of patrons and employees. Service refusal based simply on sexual orientation in particular is a high profile topic of legal debate. With over 30 states now legally recognizing same sex marriage (Georgia not being one of them as of the writing of this article), refusing service to gay or lesbian patrons is almost certain to get you tried in the court of public opinion if not the court of law.
Business owners and operators face constant liability. Whether it’s the changing of state or federal laws regarding public access, employment eligibility and hiring practices, or attempts by creditors to pierce the corporate veil, staying on top of best practices and making smart, honorable and strategic decisions about how you operate your business may be the difference between a comfortable retirement and that Right to Refuse Service sign hitting you on the way out.