Backlash against the Lexington, Virginia restaurant that asked the White House press secretary to leave mid-meal on Friday night has been swift and fierce: The Red Hen is facing intense online harassment and conspiracy theories, its owner’s home address has been posted on the internet, and other, totally unrelated restaurants that just happen to share the same name are also being targeted. But some of the restaurant’s critics seem to be missing one critical point: The Red Hen was well within its legal rights to deny Sanders service, as the Washington Post points out.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it against federal law to deny people service based on their race, religion, national origin, or color; political affiliation is notably absent from that list. State discrimination laws vary, but refusing service to someone based on their political affiliation or ideology is only illegal in a few areas: Washington, D.C., the city of Seattle, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Opponents of the Red Hen have tried to draw parallels between this situation and the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, in which a Colorado baker refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. (The Supreme Court ultimately ruled in the baker’s favor in a controversial decision.) But as Washington University law professor Elizabeth Sepper tells the Post, while the Colorado couple was specifically denied service because they were gay, she believes Sanders “is not being denied service based on any sort of group category or affiliation. In some sense, she’s being denied service on a very individual level.”
Beyond disagreeing with their political ideology, restaurants can essentially ask patrons to leave for any reason so long as it doesn’t fall under one of the traits protected by law. In April, a man who was thrown out of a Manhattan bar for wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat had his lawsuit dismissed by the judge, who ruled that being ejected for supporting President Trump did not amount to “outrageous conduct” on the bar’s part and that, despite the man’s insistence, the MAGA hat did not reflect his spiritual beliefs.
The Red Hen owner, Stephanie Wilkinson, previously told the Post that she decided to ask Sanders to leave because she believed Sanders worked for an “inhumane and unethical” administration, and that “the restaurant has certain standards that [she felt it had] to uphold, such as honesty, and compassion, and cooperation.”