The conversation about a business owner’s right to refuse service isn’t a new one—it’s made headlines numerous times.
A Colorado bakery came under fire when it refused to bake a cake for the wedding of a same-sex couple—a case that made its way to the Supreme Court. A Virginia restaurant was the topic of debate when it asked President Trump’s press secretary to leave. And even more recently, businesses have faced lawsuits over mandating that their customers wear face masks.
But, the rules about what is and isn’t allowed aren’t always quite so clear. Is refusing service allowed regardless of the circumstances? Are there certain guidelines you need to abide by? What about state laws or local laws? Let’s dig in and get your questions answered.
What Does “Right To Refuse Service” Mean?
The right to refuse service means that a business has the authority to turn away a customer. Under federal law, a business has a legal right to decline to provide their goods or services to a customer.
Sound harsh? It can be. And it’s not exactly straightforward—as evidenced by some of the legal battles we mentioned earlier.
So, can you refuse service to anyone for any reason? What are the rules here? Well, let’s talk about this a little further.
Can You Refuse Service to Anyone?
Not exactly. The law says that a business may refuse service, provided they aren’t discriminating against certain customers and violating anti-discrimination laws.
The United States Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 defines “protected classes,” and Title II of this act prohibits discrimination against these specific groups. Today, these protected classes include:
- Religion or Religious Beliefs
- Race or Color
- National Origin or Status of Citizenship
- Veteran Status
- Disability (under the Americans with Disabilities Act)
You’ll notice that there are groups who are missing from this list, such as the LGBTQ+ community. However, a number of states (including New York and California) have instituted laws that prevent businesses from discriminating based on sexual orientation.
In fact, California has expanded the list of protected classes to include sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, marital status, medical conditions, and more.
It’s important to note that the right to refuse service exists so that private businesses may protect their customers and business.
For example, if a customer is causing a disturbance, is a health or safety hazard to other patrons, or is making customers uncomfortable, then refusal of service is generally acceptable. It’s why you’ve likely seen signs that say things like, “No shoes, no shirt, no service,” as bare feet in a place of business could potentially be a health code violation.
Needless to say, the waters get murky here. But, the easiest way to think about this is to drill down to the reason you’re refusing service to a customer:
- ACCEPTABLE: Refusing service to a customer because they’re rowdy and causing a disturbance in your place of business.
- NOT ACCEPTABLE: Refusing service to a customer because he’s a man.
In that “acceptable” scenario, if the customer is also a member of a protected class, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re discriminating—because you have a justifiable reason for refusing service that has nothing to do with their race, age, sex, etc.
But again, this can get complicated, especially if the customer claims discrimination. If you have questions, your best bet is to connect with a trusted lawyer for clarity around what is and isn’t allowed in your state.
What About Door Policies at Bars and Nightclubs?
When it comes to the right to refuse service, the nightlife scene usually enters the conversation.
Bouncers and other club employees overseeing the entrance have long been known to refuse entry to patrons who oftentimes fall into these protected classes, in the interest of maintaining a certain image (such as not letting some men in on a “ladies night” at a bar).
Many people have called these policies discriminatory, but most bars and nightclubs continue to get away with it. Why? Well, it’s tough to prove discrimination. Club owners can cite dress codes, guest lists, and plenty of other factors to keep people out of the club—all of which make it legal for them to refuse service.
Is It Illegal to Refuse Service for Not Wearing a Mask?
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses needed to implement safety measures for the protection of their staff and their customers. One of these is requiring their employees and all of their patrons to wear a face mask.
This has caused quite an uproar, with many people claiming that a face mask requirement infringes upon their First Amendment rights.
Refusal of service for not wearing a face mask, however, is allowed. A private business can require customers to wear a face mask, and those signs that say “We reserve the right to refuse service to customers who don’t wear a face mask” are perfectly legal.
“You can set the terms of what happens in your business and there’s no requirement that you allow people to come into your business, for instance with a gun or without a face mask or something like that,” explained David Reymann, a First Amendment attorney, in a conversation with a Utah news station. “If you want to set those terms, it’s your business, you’re a private business, you’re entitled to do that.”
The reason for this is pretty simple: People who wish to not wear face masks aren’t a protected class. And, even further, business owners can deem that these maskless customers pose a health or safety threat to their business and other patrons.
So, “no mask, no service” is completely legal.
How Can You Refuse Service to a Customer?
As a business owner, you want to attract more customers—not turn them away. In an ideal world, you’d never have to refuse service.
But, if and when you find yourself in that difficult scenario, it’s important that you know how to handle it correctly. Here are a few best practices to keep in mind:
- Start with De-Escalation First: Sometimes refusing service is unavoidable, but it shouldn’t be your first line of defense—unless a customer is posing an immediate threat or safety concern. Instead, calmly approach the customer to see if you can resolve the issue directly.
- Provide Clear Reasoning: If it’s clear that you need to exercise your right to refuse service, provide a direct, legal reason for why you can’t serve them. This serves as verbal confirmation that you aren’t discriminating.
- Refer to a Company Policy: It’s even better if you can refer to a written company policy. For example, if your store policy states that you will remove customers who verbally harass or threaten your employees, explain that policy to the customer and explain that they need to leave.
- Document the Incident: Once the customer has left and the situation has been addressed, create written documentation of what happened—including the date and time, what occurred, and who witnessed that interaction. You’ll be happy to have that written record, should anything else come up.
Refusing service as a business owner is nerve-wracking. But, when you know what is and isn’t allowed and use these strategies, you’ll address that sensitive situation as professionally as possible.