Restaurant customers refused service because of politics generally can’t take their complaints to court, unless local law prohibits such treatment.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders took to Twitter after she was refused service at a restaurant whose owner disapproved of some of the Trump administration’s most controversial policies.
But it appears Sanders probably can’t take the owner to court.
While they can vent their outrage on social media or to anyone else who will listen, restaurant customers ushered to the door because the management disagrees with their politics generally can’t take their complaints to court unless there’s a local law specifically barring such treatment.
“Unless you are a member of a protected class, you don’t have rights in a court of law if you are asked to leave a restaurant,” says Reginald Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Your only recourse may be the court of public opinion.”
Last Friday, the owner of the Lexington, Virginia, restaurant, The Red Hen, asked Sanders to leave. Noting that Sanders had defended the administration’s immigration policy and other divisive positions, Red Hen owner Stephanie Wilkinson told The Washington Post that “the restaurant has certain standards that I feel it has to uphold, such as honesty and compassion and cooperation.”
Wilkinson’s action ignited a firestorm on social media. Trump critics applauded the move. Trump supporters denounced it. Others lamented what they deemed another sign of the country’s descent into incivility.
It also sparked questions about whether a restaurant could refuse to serve a customer based on his or her political views. With some exceptions, legal experts say, the short answer is yes.
“A restaurant can refuse to serve someone on the basis of political affiliation or disagreement, with two caveats,” Shuford says.
One exception is if that denial is actually a cover for discrimination based on characteristics such as race, gender, national origin or religion, which are protected under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The other would be if “the jurisdiction has some law prohibiting public accommodations from discriminating based on political opinion,” Shuford says.
Washington D.C., the nation’s capital, has such a statute, “but such local laws are rare,” says Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “There are only a few states that have expanded their local or state public accommodations laws to reach treatment based on partisan affiliation.’’
Even if it’s not illegal, choosing who to serve based on whether they mark their political affiliation with an “R,” “I” or “D” could be perilous when it comes to courting customers, says Greg Portell, lead partner in the retail practice of the global strategy and management consulting firm A.T. Kearney.
“From a consumer standpoint, it’s a disastrous precedent,” Portell says. Creating an “environment where you have to politically agree with every element of your consumer’s profile” is far from the model that the industry knows is successful.
Retailers and services, from restaurants to dry cleaners, generally go to lengths to make sure everyone feels welcome no matter what their views. While political watchers divide the country up into red and blue states, the only color that usually matters in business is green – as in money.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Saturday she was booted from a Virginia restaurant because she works for President Donald Trump, becoming the latest administration official to experience a brusque reception in a public setting. (June 23 ) AP
Still, despite the pitched battles that are raging, some legal experts say that bias based on political views should not be the key area of concern.
“What we do know is the kind of incident involving Ms. Sanders is rare and isolated,’’Clarke says. “It is discrimination based on race, national origin and sexual orientation that we should be concerned about. Those problems are far-reaching, systemic and widespread across our country today.’’
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