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Legal to Refuse Service Over Tattoos?

By Betty Wang, JD | Last updated on

Is it legal to refuse service because of a customer's tattoos? The rapper known as The Game says that's what happened to him at a restaurant in California on Sunday, though the restaurant denies this.

While the popular mantra of "No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service" has prepared barefooted and shirtless patrons for possibly being refused service (because of possible liability and safety concerns), what about tattoos?

What should you know about your business' practices when it comes to inked patrons who like to show off their body art? Generally speaking, here are some legal issues to consider:

Public Accommodation Laws

State and federal public accommodation laws serve to protect certain groups and actions in businesses that are open to the general public. These laws govern what you can and cannot do.

Under federal laws, it's illegal for a business that's open to the public to discriminate against a person based on a "protected trait" such as race, gender, and religion. Some state laws also prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Age, however, is actually not protected. Neither are tattoos. Therefore, since tattooed patrons do not fall under a protected category, you are generally allowed to freely (and legally) refuse service to your customers based on their tattoos.

It Still Depends, Sometimes

However, you still need to be careful. While refusing service to all of your patrons with tattoos may not be discriminatory on its face, the discriminatory effect of your "no tattoos" policy can still be illegal. For example, if all the customers you refuse to serve happen to be of one race, or one religion, then this could lead to issues.

It's best to be very familiar with the law. Public accommodation laws fall under the federal Civil Rights Act, but as mentioned above, states may have their own broader or narrower version. Under California's Unruh Civil Rights Act, for example, businesses aren't allowed to discriminate based on unconventional dress.

For more questions about your customer service or appearance policies, consult an experienced civil rights lawyer near you.

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