How many times have you went into a bar or restaurant and saw a sign that reads, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone”? I’ve seen these signs many times. They don’t seem like a very friendly greeting and, today, most restaurant or bar patrons tend to emphasize their right to service. Do restaurant and bar owners have a right to refuse service to anyone?
The right to refuse service signs are very popular. They are even sold as a novelty for people to hang wherever they’d like. Since there are so many of them, it would seem as if they are asserting a factual claim.
Such negatively phrased signs are definitely a bad way to greet your customers, and I have read many sources claiming that a restaurant or bar cannot refuse to serve someone unless they have a very good reason. For example, a bar has a responsibility to stop serving a customer who is extremely intoxicated and behaving in an unruly or dangerous way. Still others say that restaurants are private property and an owner has no obligation to serve anyone, whatsoever. In other words, service can be refused arbitrarily or based on race, gender, etc..
The problem is a loaded one. If a restaurant has a right to refuse service to anyone, then you cannot say that they must serve certain people because of race. A racist owner might refuse to serve a black man, but if he has a right to refuse service to anyone, then you cannot make him serve the customer regardless of his motivation.
While those signs are quite legal, in fact, they are not accurate. A restaurant and bar owner does not have the “right to refuse service to anyone for any reason,” which is basically what the signs seem to claim.
Are Restaurants Private Property?
Yes, restaurants are definitely private property. However, when someone opens a restaurant or bar, they take on certain responsibilities. They have opened a place of public accommodation. Since the whole purpose of their business is to sell food (or alcohol when legal) to the general public, the general public must be defined and that general public is protected by certain laws.
Restaurants Cannot Refuse Service Based on Discrimination
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits restaurants from refusing service based on race, color, religion, or national origin. Beyond this, if a restaurant refuses service to someone because of a reason not explicitly outlined, the courts would have to decide. However, it is unlikely any court would uphold a restaurant’s right to refuse service for any arbitrary, and thus likely discriminatory, reason. If you were refused service because you had a disfiguring scar, this would certainly be discriminatory.
No matter what a sign says, no restaurant or bar can simply refuse to serve you based on a whim or any reason which could be discriminatory. Having a sign doesn’t change this. All restaurants are subject to the same laws.
This is based on federal law, but any state can enact their own laws to further define when service can be refused.
When Can a Restaurant Refuse Service?
There are times when a restaurant or bar not only has a right to refuse service but a responsibility. This is especially true for bars or any establishment where alcohol is served. Obviously, a bar must refuse to serve a person who is under the legal drinking age, but there are other non-arbitrary times, as well. When a bar patron becomes over-intoxicated and presents a danger to the public or themselves, they can and should be refused service.
If a guest is being rowdy or causing a public disturbance, harassing other customers, etc. then they can be refused service. If a customer is not clothed appropriately, they can be refused, as well. The signs saying “no shoes, no shirt, no service” are asserting an appropriate reason. Also, a person who is unbathed, filthy, or who has very bad body odor can be refused service. All these reasons for refusal have to do with the comfort of other guests or their safety.
Can I Be Refused Service If I Come in Right Before Closing?
This is a tricky area. Many times a customer or two will walk in the door right before a restaurant closes. The kitchen is shutting down or has already closed. The customer is told, “we’re just about to close so we can’t seat you.”
If a restaurant is open, it’s open, right? I would agree. When restaurants begin shutting things down prior to actual closing time, it is because they figure nobody else will show up and the staff knows that the sooner they start the closing procedure, the faster everyone can go home. When a restaurant closes, it can take hours for the closing checklist to be completed, after all. Sometimes, on slow days, restaurants will close early, turning away guests even though the posted hours show the business as open. Even some corporate-owned chains allow the local managers to close early when it suits them.
It is bad business to refuse service to a customer or to give limited service to one who comes into your business during your business hours, even if it is a few minutes before closing. You are “only as good as the last customer served.” Restaurants who only take reservations easily side-step this problem. However, restaurants do have the right to refuse service for this reason. It is difficult to accommodate customers who come in a minute or two before closing, but just as they have a right to turn you away, you have a right to never come back.
In my opinion, if a restaurant does not want to deal with last-minute customers, they should require reservations or at least call-ahead seating. However, good restaurants do their best to make sure the first to the very last customer has a great experience.
Fire Regulations and Capacity
Buildings are usually zoned for capacity due to fire regulations. If a restaurant or bar has too many customers inside and any more would cause the building to be over capacity, customers can be refused service. This is a legal responsibility and should not be taken personally. It probably just means the place is hoppin!
A restaurant or bar IS a place of business. You have no right to just sit and hang out without spending any money. So, if, as often happens, only one or two people are eating or drinking in a large group and the rest are just hanging out, they can be asked to leave unless they order something.
‘Religious Freedom’ Laws
Unfortunately, some states have so-called Religious Freedom Laws. These laws have the potential to allow certain kinds of discrimination when business owners refuse service based on religious reasons. In the 21 states that have passed similar laws, most of them already had previous laws protecting against discrimination for sexual orientation. Specifically, they offer protection against a gay person being refused service based on sexual orientation. Two states, Indiana and Arkansas, had no such protection.
After a massive uproar, including Angie’s List threatening to cut off or limit their business in Indiana, the law was amended to prohibit businesses from using the law as a legal defense for refusing to provide services, goods, facilities, or accommodations. It also bars discrimination based on factors that include race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, or United States military service.” Governor Mike Pence, now the U.S. vice-president-elect, signed the amendment into law in March 2015. Prior to this, sexual orientation had never been addressed in the state.
Arkansas made a change as well, but it only addresses the government, not private businesses. It is claimed, though, that the change would, in effect, keep businesses from denying services to people based on sexual orientation.
North Carolina has recently passed a law that erases any protection against LGBT discrimination and enforces discrimination in publically owned facilities.
Recently, in Colorado, a baker refused to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple and the courts found that the bakery had illegally discriminated against the couple. Based on these types of occurrences, whether or not to refuse service can become a quagmire of “what if’s.” What if the baker were homosexual and the cake were to read “Fags should rot in hell”? While it would probably be pointless to inflict oneself with a legal battle based on a single instance of refusal of service, and there are many other businesses we can choose, should one treat us unfairly, it is usually up to the courts to decide, when the law is unclear or unfair.
Update: Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Colorado Baker in Same-sex Wedding Cake Case
Since this post was published, the Colorado same-sex wedding cake case, discussed in the preceding paragraph, advanced all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. SCOTUS upended the previous ruling and found that the courts had “showed hostility” toward the baker because of his religious beliefs.
The ruling written by Justice Anthony Kennedy claimed that members of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission showed hostility toward Phillips by suggesting that his claims of religious freedom were made to justify discrimination. This ruling is extremely narrow and, although many will assume differently, it still leaves the broader questions of discrimination based on religious believes quite open. The objection, according to the baker, was to depicting certain messages on wedding cakes that were against his religious beliefs. Unless a customer in a restaurant wants a chef to write out a message on a plate, this ruling has nothing to do with refusing service, for example, to gay couples in a restaurant, at least not on the national level. Read more about this case.
Further Update: Sarah Huckabee Sanders Kicked out of the Red Hen?
Although this is verging on commentary rather than a strict reporting of the facts regarding a restaurant’s right to refuse service, the recent incident involving While House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders in a Virginia restaurant is so directly related to the subject of this article that I feel it necessary to mention.
Sarah Sanders, with reportedly eight other people, had sat down in a Lexington, Virginia restaurant called the Red Hen. The owner was not present at the time but the chef noticed her and called the owner Stephanie Wilkinson to inform her of Sanders’ presence and to tell her that the staff was a bit upset. The owner drove in and consulted with her staff, who were indeed upset over the presence of Sanders. Some of the staff are gay and were particularly upset because of Sanders defense of Trump’s military transgender policy, while everyone was upset over her defense of the imprisonment of migrant children, and presumably, dozens of other Trump actions. Wilkinson asked the staff what they would like her to do and everyone agreed that they like to ask Sanders to leave. So, Wilkinson asked Sanders to step out to the patio, where she explained her feelings to Sander’s and asked her to leave. Sander’s agreed to leave without protest.
There are a few things to explain. One, Sanders, and the other guests with her had been served by the restaurant. They were not actually refused service. However, they had only been served a cheese plate or introductory course. The main course had not arrived. This may be an important point to remember.
But, while you will hear many people either applauding or condemning the actions of the Red Hen owner, you will not hear anyone actually mention whether or not the owner had the law on her side. Did she have the right to ask Sanders to leave based on her position as Press Secretary for POTUS? The fact is that Sanders was not only asked to leave, but she was also denied continued service since her party had only been served cheese and the main courses had not been brought out. If Sanders had caused a fuss or made a scene, then the owner would have had a better standing. However, as far as the law is concerned, the actions here were discriminatory. While it was not within Sander’s rights to refuse to leave and stage some kind of sit-in, she quite likely would have a case if she chose to file suit. Afterward, Sanders then decided to use her official Twitter account to call out the restaurant for kicking her out, which was probably in violation of ethics rules. As far as the existing laws are concerned, no matter how upset the staff was, Sanders was in no way causing any trouble, and so the restaurant did not have the “right” to refuse her service.
Note to readers: The inclusion of the last update has suddenly turned this article into a hot-button topic, causing me to receive a couple of angry messages. Although I had expressed my personal feelings in an earlier version, I have decided that those feelings do not add any value to this particular article.