Red Hen and Sanders: Can restaurants refuse service?

Sanders responds to restaurant controversy

If Sarah Sanders had chosen to dine out closer to the office, chances are she would not have been asked to leave, as she was recently in Virginia. That's because one's political affiliation or ideology is a protected trait in the District of Columbia. But that's not so in most of the rest of the country, including at the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, which asked the White House press secretary to eat elsewhere Friday night.

Current events – including Sanders' controversial experience and the refusal of a Colorado baker to make a cake for a same-sex wedding – raise ethical and legal issues, many of which are handled differently, state by state.

The Sanders case is unusual if one views her as in the realm of mainstream politics, but less so if one categorizes the Trump administration as extremist, according to Brian Powell, a sociology professor at Indiana University at Bloomington. "We are in an unusual period of time, where restaurants and fast-food chains have become politicized, and where you shop does speak to politics," he told CBS MoneyWatch. 

Federal law prohibits establishments serving the public to deny service to someone because of their race, color, religion or nationality, and a recent Supreme Court ruling ducked the broad issue of whether religious claims shield merchants from antidiscrimination laws. Other factors in which policies are viewed as discriminatory depends on location. Louisiana, for instance, in 2016 became to first state to add police officers to those protected by its hate-crime law.

"You can deny service for lots of reasons," said Powell, pointing to the common "no shoes, no shirt, no service" dress code many establishments impose. "You can't say, I'm not going to serve a woman, or someone older, and depending on what state you're in, you can't deny based on being a sexual minority."

Still, a large number of Americans believe a private business owner should be able to deny service to anyone, period, according to research Powell has authored. Putting medical and other necessary services aside, Americans responding to surveys overwhelmingly support the notion that a photographer, for instance, can deny offering services to a same-sex couple, even if the respondents themselves support same-sex marriage. 

The mindset has little to do with religion and much to do with a free-market philosophy because a majority of Americans believe a business should be allowed to operate with little government intervention. "The overriding theme was businesspeople in the U.S. have the right to deny service. And, in turn, people have the right not to fraternize those businesses," Powell said.

However, those sentiments didn't hold when it came to big corporations. The public is opposed to letting large companies run unencumbered. 

Of more than 2,000 people surveyed late last year, 61 percent said a self-employed photographer could deny service to a same-sex or interracial couple, but only 31 percent said a corporation could do the same.

"The American population doesn't buy the idea that a corporation is similar to an individual business, let alone an individual," said Powell, referring to the Supreme Court's 2014 Hobby Lobby decision. That ruling said closely held corporations hold the same rights as individuals in denying workers insurance coverage for contraception because of the business owners' religious views.

The National Restaurant Association distanced itself from the controversy that Sanders' encounter at the Red Hen sparked. "We welcome all guests," a spokesperson for the industry lobbying group said in an email, "regardless of their background or political beliefs." 

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