We’ve all seen signs posted in restaurants and shops announcing that management “reserves the right to refuse service.” It’s one of those commonly used legal phrases that most people have a vague understanding of without really knowing what it means. Can a business really refuse service? Who can they refuse it to? More importantly, who can’t they refuse to serve?
Over the last several decades, the civil rights movement in the United States has led to important legal changes guaranteeing the rights of individuals to be free from discrimination based on sex, gender, race, religion, and a number of other factors. The Americans with Disabilities Act also prohibits discrimination in public accommodations, making it illegal to refuse service to individuals who are disabled or handicapped.
Whether you post a sign or not, businesses never have the right to refuse or turn away customers simply because of their race, gender, age, sexual orientation, nationality or religion.
When Can You Refuse Service?
While the right to refuse service is not a get out of jail free card allowing businesses to turn away people they don’t want to serve, there are some valid reasons for asking customers to leave. Individuals or groups who are causing trouble or being disruptive may be asked to leave, while restaurants or other businesses with a capacity limit can turn away customers to prevent this limit from being exceeded.
There are various other examples, but the key thing to note is that declining to serve someone has to be reasonable and justifiable. For example, if there are safety concerns, or someone is harassing your staff members, then a business can refuse service. Likewise, if the way a person is dressed violates health codes, you cannot legally serve them.
In recent months we have seen one particular conflict played out more and more frequently: the clash between businesses’ “right to refuse service,” the religious freedoms of business owners, and anti-discrimination laws protecting gay and lesbian couples.
As same-sex marriage and civil unions have become legal in several states, and recognized by the federal government, several businesses have refused service to homosexuals on the grounds that they don’t agree with or support same-sex marriage.
On one side, business owners claim the right to practice their religion in good conscience. On the other, same-sex couples are protected from discrimination in public accommodations. Liberty of conscience is protected by the First Amendment, but freedom from discrimination is protected by the Civil Rights Act. Like many areas of the law, the issue of discrimination and freedoms is constantly evolving, but the first few decisions in cases involving same-sex couples have found that businesses do not have the right to refuse service to gay or lesbian customers any more than they do to those of certain races or nationalities.
In the end, while individuals might have their own beliefs, places of public accommodation must be open to all patrons who follow reasonable rules. (regarding behavior and dress, for example) But using sexual orientation as a factor in refusing service is simply too arbitrary in today’s world.
For a free society to function, a wide range of speech and behavior has to be tolerated, but that doesn’t mean everyone has to approve of it. For example, I don’t go to nightclubs and bars, but I have many friends who do. While I think that much of today’s rap music is appalling and degrading of women, I cannot stop those who enjoy listening to it. (Except in my home or car)
What would Jesus do?
We have all read the horror stories of Christians being fined or losing their businesses because their “religious beliefs” would not allow them to render services to gay couples.
Unfortunately, when it comes to gay marriage, we have people who seem to be unable to tell the difference between tolerance and approval.
Jesus said, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1-5)
Jesus was saying that we should not make our beliefs a law to everyone else. We must judge ourselves and our own acts and not pass judgment upon someone rashly. Because we all have secret sins that we protect from the public eye. It’s all matter of perspective. A small speck, when held up close to our eye, becomes a like a log to us, and prevents us from seeing around it. It’s the same speck, just a different perspective.
There were men outside of Jesus’ circle that judged him, calling him a drunkard and a glutton. Others judged him because he was a friend of prostitutes and tax collectors. (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:36-50) They too, could only see the speck in Jesus’ eye but could not remove the log in their own eye.
The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian Church, “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:11-13)
Did you get that? What do we have to do with those we believe are outside the Church? Does refusing to render service from a public business to someone we believe is outside the Church showing the love of Christ? Is refusing to bake a wedding cake or preparing a flower arrangement worth withholding the love of God?
The hypocrisy of religious freedom
Reading the stories of Christian businesses refusing services to gay couples I see dangers of hypocrisy.
Hypocrisy in the florist who refuses to provide a floral arrangement for a gay couple’s wedding, but has no problem selling a flower arrangement to the same gay man, (who is a long time loyal customer) knowing that that same gay man is most likely buying them for his gay partner.
Hypocrisy in the Christian photographer who refuse to take pictures at a gay wedding, but has no problem photographing a straight wedding, even though during the straight wedding there is drunkenness and lewdness of all kinds.
History—both modern and ancient—is tragically full of examples of times and places where religious discrimination has been the source of persecution, death and destruction. And yet, none of those religions have escaped the sad reality that human beings—given the power to do so—will use God as an excuse to inflict pain and suffering on other human beings.
The First Amendment both prevents the government of the United States from favoring one religion over another and protects each and every one of us—as American citizens—to believe whatever we choose—or choose not—to believe about what God thinks, approves of or blesses.
Bottom line is this: The First Amendment protects your rights as an American to the free exercise of your religion. It does not protect your right to use your religion to discriminate against others!
A biblical compromise
Suppose instead of the bakery owner refusing to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, they went ahead and took the order and after doing an excellent job, placed a well written note with the receipt about their love of God and how they came to believe in Jesus?
Suppose instead of the florist or the photographer refusing to render their services for a gay wedding, they agreed to do the wedding and while they were there, they lovingly shared the love of Jesus with the other guests? Who knows what spiritual seeds could be planted by just loving others the way Jesus loves them.
Jesus gravitated to the dregs of society and spent significant time with those who were considered on the fringe of his culture. Jesus did not place a standard on the kinds of people he would love and care for. In fact, if he did have bias, it was towards those who were ignored, discarded, or undervalued.
While it may be nice to tell others about our hearts for compassion via social platforms like Twitter or Facebook, it’s ultimately our actions that show our love for God.
Jesus was accused of being a friend of sinners. They called him this because it was true. Jesus himself said that he didn’t come for the spiritually healthy, but for the sick. “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31–32) If Jesus was a friend of sinners, we should be too.
Casting Crowns – Jesus, Friend of Sinners