557: Refusing Service

A Thousand Things to Talk About
557: Refusing Service

On what grounds do you think a business should be able to refuse service to someone?

Full episode script

In the last few months, the question of what basis a person or business can refuse to serve a particular group has been in the news a lot in the United States. A recent Supreme Court case ruled 7-2 in favor of a Colorado baker who refused service to a gay couple.


It highly depends on what kind of news you’re reading to find different opinions on what that court case means. It was a 7-2 ruling, but is still considered a “narrow” ruling. Why? Because the ruling didn’t actually consider or look at the actual question of discrimination. Instead, the case was decided based on the fact that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission acted and made hostile statements towards the religion of the baker.


In other words, the decision didn’t say anything about the right to refuse service and everything to say about how the Colorado Civil Rights Commission handled the decision.


In other words, no change in specific law yet — but a lot more ambiguity has arisen. And that’s added on to the patchwork of laws about who can refuse service to whom and why.


The basic structure of existing law, as explained by LegalZoom, is, quote:

a system of anti-discrimination laws enacted by federal, state and local governments. The entire United States is covered by the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination by privately owned places of public accommodation on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin. Places of “public accommodation” include hotels, restaurants, theaters, banks, health clubs and stores. Nonprofit organizations such as churches are generally exempt from the law. The right of public accommodation is also guaranteed to disabled citizens under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination by private businesses based on disability.


You’ll notice that sexual orientation is not on that list, which is a large part of why the question in Colorado came up — even though state and local law does not permit sexual orientation discrimination. But there are other types of discrimination that come into question as well. As the Washington Post outlined after an SEO service company refused to serve or employ Trump supporters, quote:

The First Amendment doesn’t apply to such private businesses, and federal law generally doesn’t ban political affiliation discrimination, so it ends up being a matter of state and local law. In New Mexico, for instance, discriminating against clients on this basis is legal — but firing employees, or threatening to fire them, based on their politics is a felony. A few cities or counties do ban such discrimination. D.C. bans discrimination based on “the state of belonging to or endorsing any political party.” Seattle bans such discrimination based on “any idea or belief, or coordinated body of ideas or beliefs, relating to the purpose, conduct, organization, function or basis of government and related institutions and activities, whether or not characteristic of any political party or group,” “includ[ing] membership in a political party or group and includ[ing] conduct, reasonably related to political ideology, which does not interfere with job performance.”


In other words, it’s rather a patchwork of laws, and often times they end up unequally applied, since businesses can refuse service for a number of factors that may or may not be related to someone’s status in a protected class.

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.