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When Do Business Owner’s Beliefs Violate Discrimination Laws?

Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prevents businesses from refusing service based on race, color, religion or national origin. Nowhere in the act’s language is sexual orientation mentioned, thus, federal law does not protect members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community from being refused service. However, this issue is not exclusive to the LGBT community; some companies are refusing service to customers based on religious beliefs regarding a variety of issues.

Religious schools have fired teachers for becoming pregnant out of wedlock or through in-vitro fertilization; businesses like Hobby Lobby have refused to provide insurance coverage for certain kinds of contraception, like the morning-after pill, to employees. Women have been turned away by pharmacists when attempting to buy birth control, and gay couples have been refused service by photo studies, bakeries and reception halls due to their lifestyles.

When Do Discrimination Laws Overrule a Business’s Right to Refuse Service?

Federal law may not provide protections for LGBT customers, but many states do; California and New York, for example, do not allow discrimination based on sexual orientation for private businesses operating in a public forum. In states like these, many religious organizations and non-profits are exempt from these laws, but these exemptions are not extended to private businesses. Even in states where discrimination against gay customers is legal, some cities have enacted ordinances protecting LGBT customers.

Refusal to serve certain customers based on religious beliefs is not a new phenomenon. When the Civil Rights Act was enacted in the 1960s, some businesses fought racial integration on religious grounds, claiming that God wanted the races to remain separate. Some universities punished students for interracial dating. However, integration was not meant to punish anyone for their specific beliefs; it was about ensuring fairness under the law for all U.S. citizens, including those who do not subscribe to the same religious beliefs as others. This same logic can be applied to women and members of the LGBT community.

Do Companies have the Right to Refuse Service?

Businesses do not actually have a right to refuse service in the way that many people interpret it. Federal, state and local laws protect certain classes of people from discrimination, and to deny service based on specific characteristics like race, gender and, in some places, sexual orientation, is illegal.

The key to refusing service is that the reasoning must not be based upon an individual’s specific characteristics. A business can turn away a customer who is improperly dressed, for example, but not because the business dislikes a person’s religious garb. A barefoot customer in a restaurant can present a health hazard; it would be hard to argue that a woman in a hijab presents a similar risk.

Companies are allowed to express their religious ideals. Chick-Fil-A can close on Sundays to give workers a day for rest and worship. In-N-Out Burger and Forever 21 can print Bible verses on their packaging if they so desire. If customers do not like it, then they do not have to give those companies their business. However, when certain classes of people are singled out and discriminated against by companies on religious grounds, courts often rule against the company in question. All customers deserve equal protection under the law.

To make sure that your company is expressing your values while staying within the confines of employment law, contact a business attorney near you. An attorney can review your business practices and make suggestions for decreasing the chances of harmful and costly litigation.

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