The Chicago Employment Law Blog

Can Illinois Businesses Refuse Service to Gays?

Although businesses can refuse to serve customers who don't pay their bills, Illinois businesses likely can't refuse to serve gay people.

While federal law doesn't protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) people from discrimination when patronizing businesses, Illinois and Chicago laws forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation.

However, businesses that aren't open to the public may have a legal loophole.

Federal and Local Laws

Under Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal government prohibits discrimination by private businesses that are open to the public. However, it only prevents businesses from denying service to people based on color, religion, race, and national origin -- it doesn't say anything about sexual orientation. So under federal law, gay people aren't protected against many discriminatory business practices.

However, like the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, Illinois's Human Rights Act forbids refusing public accommodation based on a wider range of classes, including sexual orientation. Chicago also has its own Human Rights Ordinance that prohibits any business that is open to the general public from discriminating against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

So while federal law usually trumps state laws, state and local laws are allowed to expand civil rights protection against discriminatory practices -- which in this case protects LGBT people from private business discrimination.

Private v. Public

While businesses that offer a service, product, or facility to the general public aren't allowed to refuse service to gay people based on Illinois and Chicago law, private clubs may be allowed to. The Illinois Human Rights Act allows private, members only establishments decide who they want to let in -- even if it means discriminating based on a protected class like race or sexual orientation. Under Illinois laws, private clubs are non-profit organizations that are operated solely for recreational, fraternal, social, or political purposes and have been granted a federal tax exemption.

However, these businesses don't serve the public. Businesses in Illinois that are open to the general public can't refuse to serve gay people.

So if you're worried that your business policies might be discriminating against gay people or other protected classes, have a civil rights or employment law attorney in Chicago look over your handbook.

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