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Is Your Private Business a Public Accommodation?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on April 06, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1980 prohibit discrimination based upon race, gender, ethnicitiy, religion, and disabilities in places of public accommodations.

But, what is a public accommodation? Does it apply to your small business?

Public Accommodation

Generally, a public accommodation is any business that provides services to the public. Title II of the Civil Rights Act defines a public accommodation as any hotels, restaurants, theaters, or any business' whose operations affect commerce.

Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Acts has an even broader definition of public accommodations. These include:

  • Inns, hotels, and motels,
  • Restaurants and bars
  • Theaters and stadiums
  • Bakery, grocery store, clothing stores, and any sales or rental establishment
  • Laundromats, dry-cleaners, and banks
  • Accountants and lawyers' offices
  • Museums, libraries, and zoos

This is just a short list of the many private business that are considered to be public accommodations. Essentially, if your business is open to the public, it should be open to all members of the public regardless of race, religion, gender, disability.

Private Club

Under the two acts, private clubs are not public accommodations and are exempt from the requirements of those laws. 

While the laws do not specifically define private clubs, generally, a private club is a business that is not open to the public. Courts have considered membership policies, size of the organization, reason for formation, admission policies, and control of the members to determine whether a business is a private club or a public organization. Most clubs that limit membership, charge a membership fee, and only provide services to members are private clubs.

However, a private club can become a public accommodation if it provides services to non-members for a fee. For example, a private club offers tennis courts and swimming pools to its members. However, on Fridays, non-members can play tennis or swim if they pay an admission fee. Since the club opened its facilities up to the general public, it became a public accommodation subject to the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Indiana and Arkansas' Religious Freedom Acts

There has been a lot of public discussion of Indiana and Arkansas' Religious Freedom Restoration Acts. These laws protect the rights of a person to not have his or her exercise of religion burdened during the course of conducting business.

Interestingly, the word "person" is broadly defined to include businesses, such as corporations and partnerships, as well as individuals. The distinction between public accommodation and private club does not apply in this context. The key discussion here would occur around whether the government was burdening the religious exercise of the company or business, and whether the persons being discriminated against were a protected class under the law.

If you need help determining whether your business is subject to the Civil Rights Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act, an experienced civil rights lawyer may be able to help.

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