Conservative religious organization refused restaurant service in Virginia: does this violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

December 7, 2022 • 9:15 am

This incident is relevant to the Supreme Court’s recent hearings about whether a Colorado web designer could refuse service by refusing to create a wedding website for a gay couple. That was a First Amendment case, but this refusal to service, in Virginia, may constitute a civil rights case. You decide:

Reader Williams Garcia sent me a link to an article from ABC 8 News serving the Richmond, Virginia area.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited, among other things, discrimination in public places against certain “protected classes”: to wit:

Note that it says nothing about “politics”, so I suppose a restaurant could deny service to a group or person on political grounds, though I’m not 100% sure. Could a restaurant refuse to serve Mitch McConnell because he’s a Republican servant of Beelzebub?

This is important because a “conservative advocacy group” mentioned in the article (click on screenshot) was refused service on grounds that seem to involve both the group’s politics and their religious foundation:

Here’s the skinny (my bolding):

A Virginia-based conservative Christian advocacy group was turned away from a local restaurant just an hour before their reservation last week.

A representative of the Family Foundation said he was frustrated after the group was turned away from Metzger Bar and Butchery last Wednesday. The group claims the refusal had to do with their religious beliefs.

According to Todd Gathje, Director of Government Relations for the Family Foundation, one of the owners of Metzger called a representative of the Family Foundation about an hour before the reservation time, saying that the group would not be dining in the restaurant.

“We’ve had events at restaurants all over the city and never encountered a situation like this,” Gathje said. “It’s no secret that we are very much engaged in the public policy debate on a number of controversial issues. But we never expected that we would be denied service at a restaurant based on our religious values or political beliefs.”

For businesses like restaurants, federal and state laws do not allow discrimination based on protected classes such as race, religion, sex and more, as defined by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

It’s not yet clear if this incident falls under one of those protected classes.

The question, then, is whether the Family Foundation of Virginia (FFV) was refused service because it’s politically conservative or because it was religious. In fact, the two are connected. Wikipedia says this about the organization:

Family Foundation of Virginia is a socially conservative and Christian fundamentalist lobbying organization headquartered in the US city of Richmond, Virginia. It was focused originally on opposition to sex education. It has expanded to opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, nondiscrimination policies, and same-sex marriage. The organization supports legal conversion therapy for minors and increased legal restriction on abortion.

(By the way, it was the FFV that, it says, lobbied so hard against the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in Virginia that it failed to be ratified by the state, and that was the end of the line for the ERA).

And on their own page, under “Who we are,” the FFV says this:

The Family Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, non-partisan, faith-based organization. We believe there is no square inch in all the universe over which God has not claimed “Mine,” and that includes the arenas of civil government and public policy where we spend much of our time. We advocate for policies based on Biblical principles that enable families to flourish at the state and local level. We are uniquely positioned at the center of a national, state, and local coalition, which includes being associated with Focus on the Family.

Well, that sounds pretty religious to me, and on their own site they beef about being reused service at Metzger’s.

The question, then, is whether they were refuse service on religious grounds or on political grounds (i.e., Metzger’s just didn’t like the organization as a whole, and wasn’t refusing service because they were religious). I don’t think it matters whether they were refused service because Metzger’s itself had a religious belief that prevented them from serving the FFV, or whether the FFV was refused service because of its religious beliefs; the law above implies that the latter is enough to constitute a civil rights violation.

Here’s what the site says about being refused service:

The restaurant noted that many staff members were LGBTQ or women and that it believed the Family Foundation “seeks to deprive women and LGBTQ+ persons of their basic rights in Virginia.”

Gathje has previously written for the Family Foundation about a stalled effort in 2021 to remove an unenforceable provision of the Virginia Constitution — invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 — that defines marriage as between one man and one woman, saying that removing it would open the door to “polygamous, incestuous, kinship or even child marriages.”

Gathje said he thought it was unfair of the restaurant to deny service over the group’s religious beliefs.

“It was a very intolerant message being conveyed,” Gathje said.

Well, of course they were refused service either because they were political or religious in a way that the LGBTQ staff didn’t like, but in this case it’s impossible, I think, to separate the politics and the religion, since the former comes from the latter. And the reasons given for refusing service are ambiguous. While the FFV has offered to sit down with the restaurant’s owners to try to avoid situations like this, it could institute a lawsuit. If they were refused service because they were, say, black or Jewish, and that would be a valid lawsuit. But because the FFV doesn’t favor “basic rights” of LGBTQ+ people, does that count? Here are the “core principles” of the organization, which seem based on religion:

  1. Human life, from fertilization until natural death, is sacred, and the right to life is fundamental to all other rights.

  2. Marriage, as a lifelong union between one man and one woman, is an institution of God and a foundation for civil society.

  3. Gender, beautifully expressed as either male or female according to God’s immutable design, is an important biological and social reality that must be respected by all.

  4. Parents are ultimately responsible for the care and well-being of their children and should therefore be free from intrusive government involvement.

  5. The right of conscience and the right to practice faith according to personal convictions are sacred and should not be denied or infringed.

  6. The role and jurisdiction of government is clearly prescribed by our Constitution and consequently should be restrained from excessive involvement in the lives of citizens.

  7. Human exploitation, in its various forms, is wrong, and governments have a legitimate and important role in curbing these abuses.

As you see from #2 and #3, they do favor things that violate the legal rights of LGBTA+ people. But does that count?

Perhaps lawyers could weigh in here. Would this refusal of service be illegal? If not now, would it be later if the Supreme Court, as is likely, decides for the web designer, and whether it does so purely on First Amendment grounds (“a website is an expression”) or whether it issues a broader ruling allowing any discrimination because of a businessperson’s religious beliefs?

45 thoughts on “Conservative religious organization refused restaurant service in Virginia: does this violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

    1. The gods of poetic justice, maybe.

      I hope all atheists here will familiarize themselves with George Carlin’s works. He did more to make atheism accessible to the masses than most other philosophers I know.

      (I hope I’m not embedding a video. This interface trips me up sometimes.)

  1. Could a restaurant refuse to serve Mitch McConnell because he’s a Republican servant of Beelzebub?

    Sure it could — just as The Red Hen Restaurant in Lexington, VA refused to serve chicken dinner to then-presidential-press-secretary (now Arkansas governor-elect) Sarah Huckabee Sanders, after comping her a cheese platter.

    People may disagree with the politesse of that decision, but nothing in any civil-rights law constricts a restaurant to do otherwise.

  2. This is obviously wrong and not legal, but they were making a point. Discrimination is not acceptable. Supreme Court take notice.

  3. Personally I would have honored their reservation. BUT would have all employees that wanted to wear t-shirts advocating LGTBQ rights, gay marriage, abordions rights etc. Decorate the place with rainbow flags.

    1. You’ve obviously never run a retail business.
      My father would allow all candidates in an election to display one sign each in his store windows. He didn’t care how people voted. He just wanted to still be his customers after the election was over.

      1. > He just wanted to still be his customers after the election was over.

        I’m glad to hear that. I’d say either one sign per candidate – or zero (probably the latter), but keep it consistent across the board.

        Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the era we are living in anymore, with massive boycotts from both sides against retailers for either promoting the wrong candidate or for not promoting the right one. It should be safer to have a zero-sign policy, but I suspect pretty soon it won’t be. The number of pressured/mandatory speech acts will only increase, with true neutrality being virtually impossible. There have long been countries where the private commerce is politically polarized and people are told by their parties what businesses to patronize. There are countries where I have heard the expression “Jews drink Coke; Arabs drink Pepsi”, no exaggeration.

        I fully expect political polarization of commerce to continue. Politically savvy businesses will invest in separate/segregated businesses on each side of the divide. And I don’t like any of it.

  4. I think we should explicitly extend civil-rights protections to cover political opinions.** The whole basis of a liberal democracy is that we vote on policies, but otherwise we accept people who disagree with us as fellow citizens who can go about their daily lives as normal, which includes dining at a restaurant.

    Too many, nowadays, want to ostracise their political opponents from society, such as by getting people fired for having the wrong opinion.

    [**In the UK the relevant wording is not just religion but “religion or belief”, where “belief” can cover things like being gender critical (as held in the Maya Forstater ruling).]

  5. “We believe there is no square inch in all the universe over which God has not claimed ‘Mine,’”

    So G*d, with ultimate power and authority, claims everything as Mine, then gives planet Earth to Satan as a housewarming gift? Because of G*d’s great love for us?

    We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. 1 John 5:19

    Nice one…

  6. I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, but I would think if the restaurant can show that they regularly and freely serve other Christians or Christian organizations that do not have the same politics of this group, they could demonstrate that it’s not religion but politics that would be the basis of their refusal to provide service.

  7. > I suppose a restaurant could deny service to a group or person on political grounds

    It’ll be interesting, to be sure. It is discrimination based on a non-protected status that is statistically-but-not-absolutely correlated with a protected status. Whatever the outcome, I hope it is consistent.

    1. It’s also statistically correlated with race – those people are almost all white. This could be sticky wicket.

  8. They could make the argument that they were protecting their staff from exposure to a group that exists to violate their fundamental rights, if in fact they have LGBTQ servers. Employers have an obligation to protect their staff from harassment.

    1. But if the customers were polite to the servers while in the restaurant, tipped well, and didn’t harass them personally on the street?

    2. Are you suggesting that the group would likely have harassed the serving staff? Any actual evidence of that? Or are you suggesting that the mere presence, in the same room as you, of someone with a different opinion nowadays qualifies as “harassment”?

      1. Jan wrote “Employers have an obligation to protect their staff from harassment.”
        Coel wrote “are you suggesting that the mere presence […] of someone with a different opinion nowadays qualifies as “harassment”?”

        Jan might not be, but other people do. Let’s shift Jan’s term “harassment” to the less precise “hostility”. “Harassment” requires a concrete action (as I understand it, but definitions are shifting), but “hostility” and “toxicity” do not; I feel that all three terms are being abused and twisted, and their definitions will only become less and less precise in the decade(s) to come.

        Look at “hostile/toxic workplace” legislation now, where employees demand the right to feel absolutely comfortable in everything they do. Several developments during the pandemic only strengthened the idea of employee comfort zones.

      2. The US of A had a long and odious history of places of public accommodation denying service to people based on their race, religion, and ethnicity. Due to the apparently intractable nature of this discrimination — it had continued unabated a century after the Civil War — congress passed (over a lengthy filibuster by senators representing Jim Crow states), and the US president signed into law, the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

        Since the passage of this landmark legislation, several states and localities have enacted similar statutes and ordinances of their own. Because, by then, gay people finally felt emboldened to come out of the closet (despite the long history of discrimination against them), many of these state and local statutes and ordinances also include provisions prohibiting places of public accommodation from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

        This nation has no history to speak of regarding invidious discrimination at places of public accommodation based on people’s political persuasions. Accordingly, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of political views is a remedy in search of a problem.

        1. You’re right, the nation has no history of declining service (or sacking people) based on political opinion, instead it is a rather recent trend.

          1. “… the nation has no history of declining service (or sacking people) based on political opinion….”

            I wouldn’t doubt there is a rumbling sound, like something spinning, coming from the grave of Eugene McCarthy.

            Perhaps an exception which proves the rule, but I couldn’t help making the comment

          2. And if the refusal of service based on political opinion were to become a recurrent problem beyond the power of the free market to rectify, congress and state legislatures are free to amend civil-rights statutes to include “political opinion” as a prohibited basis on which to deny service at places of public accommodation.

            Keep in mind that one swallow does not a summer make, my friend.

            1. In the UK there have (for example) been many cases of gender-critical women’s groups being denied room hires, denied use of Eventbrite, PayPal, crowd-funding sites, etc, because they question trans ideology. This is not how society should work.

              The Equality Act (2010) gives some protection, given that the protected characteristic is “religion or belief” — thus the above incident would likely be illegal in the UK — but we could do with clarifying or extending that “belief” clause.

              1. Maya Forstater’s Employment Appeal Tribunal, which sets a precedent to be followed in other cases, ruled that gender-critical opinions are indeed legally protected by the Equality Act (2010).

  9. Although the organization’s political actions are based on their religion, the political actions are political actions. Rejecting their politics while not rejecting their religion is a picky little point, but legal cases often pivot on such things. It seems to me that the restaurant can defend their action as a rejection of just the politics, especially if it does serve religious groups.

    However, I think the more fun (and possibly effective) action would have been to accept the group and then decorate the servers, the room, etc., with rainbow flags and other things supporting politics the group opposes.

    1. Then I imagine the opposite situation. A gay or atheist group makes a reservation at a restaurant and is greeted by Christian crosses strewn across the room, with signs, posters and banners citing appropriate verses from Leviticus and Psalm 14:1. This is bullying, a business going out of its way to make customers feel unwelcome so that they either sit humiliated or leave.

      If I can see that clearly when it’s me, I should try to see it when it’s them. A business should stay out of this.

      If I were to fantasize a way of making a point without making a point, though, I’d be the smiling waitress or waiter saying “Welcome to Joe’s Fine Dining. I’d like to mention that I’m a lesbian atheist, but am pleased to serve your group in the spirit of the love for our country’s freedom and common humanity that we all share. Now, would anybody like to hear our specials?”

      They’ll probably feel obliged — or moved — to respond in kind, and that would likely do them (and their stubbornly blind ideology) far more good than forcing them to respond in kind to a display of peevish territory-marking.

      1. I agree with you. There are proper times and places for broadcasting ones politics (that’s why Twitter was invented!). A customer-serving business should just serve customers.

  10. My take is that they were refused service because the restaurant staff considers them to be obnoxious a$$holes. No religion or politics involved.

  11. I hope the people who oppose basically all other basic forms of freedom and human rights can be treated totally fair and be protected by all the laws they deny to trans and gay people /s

    1. It’s a piquant irony indeed that a group involved in opposing myriad nondiscrimination policies readily flips the script when they perceive themselves to be the target of discrimination.

  12. Seems to me that whether Metzger Bar and Butchery discriminated against the Family Foundation of Virginia based on the latter’s association with a particular brand of Christian religious belief or simply refused it service because of its political positions is precisely the type of factual determination that courts routinely make after hearing the testimony of percipient witnesses with knowledge of the underlying facts.

    If the FFV believes Metzger’s discriminated against it on religious grounds (and if it believes it is worth the effort and cost), it can bring suit and present its evidence. If it carries its burden of proof, it should prevail; if it doesn’t, it shouldn’t.

    Courts are called upon to decide close and difficult questions all the time.

  13. Certainly, I support their right to serve whoever or not and I find it kind of funny. However upping the ante, tit for tat etc may only complicate matters further. Things seem only to be getting more inflammatory and divisive. More lawsuits. Boring. A few LGBTQ posters etc around the restaurant may make it uninhabitable for certain folks.

    1. “Certainly, I support their right to serve whoever or not”

      In principle I would agree with that. But in principle I also believe that morality and ethics are human made construct with no objective reality. Every right granted to one group is a right taken away from another. They are two sides of the same coin. I own property. There is nothing in the universe that says I have that right. Yet I have been granted it. And by owning property I have taken away rights from 8 billion people. These rights given and taken are not based on universal truths but necessities of human nature. We make laws not because they are right but in an attempt to make a better society overall.

  14. It seems to me that they should have been served. Whether they are a political group or a religious group or some other group, their purpose in the restaurant was to eat. If they were in the restaurant to proselytize, to protest, to annoy others with political propaganda, or to cause trouble, then the restaurant has grounds to dismiss them. But to refuse to seat them simply because of their beliefs doesn’t seem legal to me. It seems like refusing to seat them for their thoughts, and not their actions. It’s an interesting case.

    1. I fully agree with you, Norman. They are in business to provide a general service to people (like website design and baking) and should not refuse service to any person or group without some prior reason (e.g. the group had caused a problem in the past).

  15. There was a case in NY some years ago where a black lawyer was denied an apartment rental. She complained, but the landlord said she was denied because she was a lawyer, and thus knew her rights as a tenant. Lawyers are not a protected class, and the landlord prevailed.


    1. When I was a freshly minted lawyer clerking for a federal judge, my wife, my young son, and I were looking for a place to rent. I found a house on the market modeled on one of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes. My wife and I thought it might be a cool place to raise a kid for a year.

      I called the owner and everything appeared to be going swimmingly until I mentioned that I was a recent law-school graduate. At that point, he said he’d had a bad experience renting to a lawyer — I hadn’t even gotten the results from the bar exam yet — and would never rent to one again. (He claimed that the previous lawyer/tenant had threatened to litigate some issue against him until he went broke paying legal fees.)

      I talked to a friend who was in real estate, and considered contesting it, but then concluded life was too short to spend a year fighting with some oddball landlord.

  16. It’s not just “religious” beliefs but “deeply held personal” beliefs that define the discriminate-at-will card these cultists play. The restaurant could easily claim that they have deeply held personal beliefs that prevent them from associating with a monstrous organization like FFV. Of course, the real issue is power and authoritarianism which the FFV is all to eager to wield, but loathe to be on the receiving end. What’s good for the goose…

  17. One often sees those signs that say establishments reserve the right to refuse service to anyone for any reason…clearly this wouldn’t protect against civil rights violations, but do they have any teeth at all, or are they just really for show?

    1. It’s complicated. The policies have some teeth, e.g., reserving the right to kick people out for dress code violations. The rules are constantly tested, though, and my understanding is that the issue has not been fully settled. Can an establishment prohibit headgear; what if it is religious headgear? What if it is secular headgear worn for religious reasons? An orthodox rabbi I know frequently wears a baseball cap.

      This ties back to my point earlier about private companies not being permitted to discriminate on the basis of religion, but are generally permitted to discriminate on the basis of an action/trait statistically-but-not-absolutely correlated with the protected status.

      One of the points that comes up is if the private company does not disclose WHY it chose to discriminate, then they have the presumption of innocence – in criminal cases, at any rate, but not in civil cases. If they do not disclose the grounds for the discrimination, then anyone pressing the charges in a criminal case has the burden of finding a clear pattern.

    2. Civil rights law is hardly consistently applied. (I do not think this is even possible, there are too many ludicrous civil rights verdicts.) I am reminded of racial discrimination, which is in theory illegal and in practice mandatory. I doubt a religious organization could even force progressive businesses to bake cakes supporting traditional marriage.

  18. I believe it would be easy to make the case that they were denied service because of their political lobbying, since they have been quite public and influential with their political activism. That they claim a religious foundation for those political beliefs can be separated from the political activity.

    Having said that, I think a restaurant should be in the business of serving peaceful paying customers food. This choice makes the right-wing organization look like martyrs. Choosing not to serve them was not a meaningful political action.

  19. Human exploitation, in its various forms, is wrong, and governments have a legitimate and important role in curbing these abuses.

    Yet religion, often used as a tool of coercion (especially against children) is also a form of human exploitation (in its various forms). Religion has a hard time looking in the mirror.

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