As several states are considering bills that would, in effect, reinforce a business owner's right to refuse service to gay and lesbian customers, many may be wondering if it's even legal to do so.
With a patchwork of federal, state, and local laws in place regarding the rights of gays and lesbians in public accommodations -- i.e., most businesses that are open to the public -- the issue can get a bit confusing.
Here is a general overview of what business owners need to know:
Federal Law and Private Businesses
Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- the federal law which prohibits discrimination by private businesses which are places of public accommodation -- only prevents businesses from refusing service based on race, color, religion, or national origin. Federal law does not prevent businesses from refusing service to customers based on sexual orientation.
This is true both for customers and employees of private businesses, although forces in Congress have been attempting to pass laws which protect gay and lesbian employees for decades.
So if there are no state or local laws to the contrary, private business owners may legally choose to refuse service to customers based on their sexual orientation -- and some have publicly done so.
State, Local Anti-Discrimination Laws
However in some states like California and New York, discrimination based on sexual orientation by private businesses is prohibited by state law. In many of these states, bona fide religious organizations and religious non-profits have been exempted from these laws when they conflict with their religious beliefs; private businesses are not exempt.
Even in states which do not prohibit refusing service to gays -- like Texas or Arizona -- local laws or ordinances in specific cities may prevent LGBT discrimination. This may be part of the reason for Arizona's controversial SB 1062, a bill which would reinforce the ability of private business owners to refuse to serve gays and lesbians based on religious beliefs.
Regardless of whether SB 1062 passes in Arizona, private business owners can still legally refuse to serve gays and lesbians under state law, barring a local law that may say otherwise.
Should Your Business Adopt a 'No Gays' Policy?
While your business may be within its legal rights to refuse gays and lesbians, it may not make the most sense financially. Even Arizona Sen. John McCain told CNN that laws like the one proposed by SB 1062 hurt the image of the state as well as its economy -- and it could be a poison pill for businesses.
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