Many places of business post notices that say they have the right to refuse service to any individual. However, this right of refusal does not override federal anti-discrimination laws. While places of business can set guidelines on who they will serve, they must apply these guidelines to everyone equally, and business practices must fall within legally mandated statutes and codes.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans discrimination of individuals based on race, color, national origin, or religion, but laws governing LGBT discrimination vary from state to state. LGBT individuals are not expressly protected under federal anti-discrimination laws. Many states, such as Washington and California, have adopted laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. In states that don’t have these kinds of laws, some cities have adopted similar policies.

Can an LGBT Couple Sue a Business for Refusing Service?

Many lawsuits have been filed by LGBT couples who claim they were refused service because of their sexual orientation. This issue is surfacing most commonly in the wedding service industry as some business owners claim that servicing LGBT couples violates their right to religious expression. In 2014, a Colorado judge ruled that a bakery’s refusal to make a wedding cake for an LGBT couple was illegal. In 2015, a florist in Florida was successfully sued for the same reason.

How Can a Business Defend Itself?

The Supreme Court decided in 2015 that marriage was a right for all individuals regardless of their sexual orientation. While future LGBT discrimination defenses may be heavily determined on the local laws of the state or county in which they are filed, they could be overshadowed by this ruling.

Religious defenses or exemptions may apply in some states, but this depends on the nature of the company or institution. Religious organizations are often exempted from various laws. It might be defensible for a church to discriminate against LGBT individuals while hiring a pastor, for instance, but not for a florist or a bakery to refuse service based on sexual orientation.

Another defense employers could use against LGBT discrimination suits is known as “bona fide occupational qualification.” If the nature of the open position requires an individual of a specific race, gender, or national origin, an employer can consider those personal characteristics. This is more related to hiring practices, however, and not as easily applicable to charges of discrimination against LGBT customers.  

Do I Need a Lawyer?

Yes. Whether you are an individual who has been discriminated against or a business who has been accused of discrimination, you need a skilled and experienced discrimination lawyer to advise you of your best interests, develop a case on your behalf, and represent you during settlement negotiations or in court.