Naperville Business Lawyer Discusses the Right to Refuse Service

As a business owner, you are probably familiar with the maxim “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” In fact, you may have a sign or poster displayed prominently in your place of business with those exact words or a similar approximation of them. But, does the law really give you the right to refuse service to particular person or group of people?

In my practice as a business law attorney, I am frequently approached with this exact question. The answer, as with many areas of the law, is not always clear and depends greatly on the exact circumstances in question. There is an important difference between refusing to serve a would-be customer—which may be legal—and discrimination—which is against the law and a violation of that person’s rights.

Ongoing Case for an Illinois Bed and Breakfast

In 2011, the owners of the Timber Creek Bed & Breakfast in Ford County, Illinois refused to allow a same-sex couple to host a civil union ceremony at their establishment. At the time, same-sex marriage was not permitted in the state, but civil unions had just been legalized. The owners of the privately-owned facility contended that they had the right to refuse service based on their religious beliefs that forbid same-sex unions. As a closely-held family business with one employee, the owners felt they should not be compelled to violate their faith-based principles.

The couple ultimately held their ceremony elsewhere, then married after the law was changed in 2013. They continued their lawsuit against the bed and breakfast, however, in hopes of clarifying the line between religious rights and the civil rights of those who identify as part of the LGBT community. The story made headlines again last month when the Illinois Human Rights Commission refused to hear the owners’ appeal, ultimately upholding an administrative judge’s ruling that couple’s rights had been violated.

Illinois Human Rights Act

The Human Rights Act was enacted in 2006 to protect Illinois residents and visitors from discrimination. It expressly states that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation—among many other bases—is a violation of the law. The judge, in this case, determined that the owners of the bed and breakfast illegally discriminated against the couple based on their sexual orientation and order the owners to pay more than $80,000 in damages and legal fees.

It is important to note that the Human Rights Act does not prohibit a business owner from ever denying service. The decision just may not be made based on an individual’s characteristics such as age, race, gender, or religion. A business owner may refuse to serve an unruly or belligerent person, as long as all unruly or belligerent people are treated the same way. For example, the popular “No shirt, no shoes, no service” policies at most restaurants are perfectly reasonable in most cases, as customers without shirts or shoes could present potential safety concerns for the business.

Have Additional Questions?

If you have more concerns about your right to refuse service to would-be customers, contact an experienced Naperville business law attorney. Call the Gierach Law Firm at 630-756-1160 for a consultation with a member of our team today.


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