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A Virginia restaurant refused to serve a conservative Christian group. Is that legal?

As conflict rages over business owners refusing to serve same-sex couples, one restaurant sparked controversy by turning away a group over its stance on same-sex marriage and abortion

SHARE A Virginia restaurant refused to serve a conservative Christian group. Is that legal?
Christian baker Jack Phillips speaks to supporters outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Monday, Dec. 5, 2022.

Jack Phillips, who’s case was heard by the Supreme Court five years ago after he objected to designing a wedding cake for a gay couple, speaks to supporters outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Monday, Dec. 5, 2022. Phillips is one of the faces of the nationwide debate over service refusals.

Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

Even before the Supreme Court took up a case this term on whether a web designer can turn away some same-sex couples, debates were raging across the country about how to balance the rights of business owners with the rights of the customers they serve.

Wedding cake bakers, T-shirt creators, florists and even tax preparers have faced pushback for refusing to serve gay couples under certain circumstances, most notably when customers are seeking products for a wedding celebration.

Now, a restaurant in Richmond, Virginia, is grabbing headlines for participating in a less common — but no less contentious — kind of service refusal.

Metzger Bar and Butchery recently canceled a conservative Christian group’s event reservation after staff members raised concerns about the group’s opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion rights, according to Virginia Business.

“Many of our staff are women and/or members of the LGBTQ+ community. All of our staff are people with rights who deserve dignity and a safe work environment. We respect our staff’s established rights as humans and strive to create a work environment where they can do their jobs with dignity, comfort and safety,” the restaurant said in an Instagram post.

The Christian group, called the Family Foundation, later addressed the incident in a blog post titled, “We’ve been canceled! Again.”

“Welcome to the double standard of the left, where some believe (a Christian baker) must be forced to create a wedding cake as part of the celebration of a same-sex ceremony but any business should be able to deny basic goods and services to those who hold biblical values around marriage,” wrote Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation, in the post.

When can restaurants turn customers away?

In the blog post, Cobb also accused Metzger Bar and Butchery of engaging in the same type of discrimination that plagued Black communities around 70 years ago.

“Welcome to the 21st century, where people who likely consider themselves ‘progressives’ attempt to recreate an environment from the 1950s and early ’60s, when people were denied food service due to their race,” she wrote.

But a legal expert interviewed by The Washington Post said that Metzger’s decision differs from past service refusals in one important way: It was motivated by political difference rather than race.

“It’s about the overall positions and policies the group has taken,” said Elizabeth Sepper, a law professor at the University of Texas, to the Post.

While civil rights laws generally forbid places of public accommodation, including restaurants, from discriminating on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation and other protected characteristics, it’s rare for them to include politics-related protections. That’s why a judge recently sided with a bar that kicked out a conservative patron.

“A judge in 2018 sided with a New York bar that ejected a customer for wearing a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat in support of President Donald Trump,” The Washington Post reported.

Boycotts of restaurants after service refusals

But business which turns away customers for political reasons doesn’t necessarily get off scot-free. They’re often targeted by angry online reviewers and calls for boycotts, as Metzger’s has been.

“As of (Dec. 2), Yelp had disabled the ability for people to post comments on Metzger Bar and Butchery’s page after it received numerous negative reviews related to the incident, quickly followed by several positive reviewers attempting to counteract the one-star reviews,” Virginia Business reported.

To be clear, business owners who object to same-sex marriage for religious reasons also face online harassment when they get caught up in the service refusal debate. For example, dozens of Twitter users sent negative tweets about Lorie Smith, the web designer at the center of this term’s Supreme Court case, during oral arguments on Monday.

However, businesses and customers involved in highly publicized service refusals can also financially benefit from the controversy. The Washington Post article on the Metzger drama noted that the restaurant and the Family Foundation have launched fundraising drives this week.

“Metzger on Saturday posted an image of a bourbon-based cocktail dubbed ‘Cracks in the Foundation’ and said it would donate the profits from its sale to Equality Virginia, a group that advocates for LGBTQ rights. ... In its blog post describing the incident, the Family Foundation sought donations, too,” the article said.

How do Americans feel about service refusals?

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty’s fourth annual Religious Freedom Index, released Wednesday, found that Americans generally support the right of business owners to refuse to participate in same-sex weddings for religious reasons.

“Roughly 7 in 10 Americans supported the business owner’s right to act on their beliefs, regardless of whether the business owner in question was Muslim, Jewish or Christian,” the survey found.

But in research on service refusals, question wording seems to matter quite a bit. Other surveys have shown that Americans are quite divided over whether business owners should be allowed to turn away LGBTQ customers.

For example, just last year, Public Religion Research Institute identified widespread opposition to allowing business owners to refuse service to LGBTQ customers when they didn’t reference weddings in the question text.

“About 1 in 5 Americans (22%) say they favor allowing small business owners to refuse to provide products or services to gay or lesbian people if doing so would violate their religious beliefs. Three in four Americans (76%) oppose religiously based refusals to serve gay and lesbian people,” the Institute reported in 2021.