Civil Rights Act of 1964

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is landmark federal legislation that prohibits discrimination in public accommodations, employment, education, voting, and federally assisted programs.  In addition to Title VII, which covers employment, most relevant for civil rights law purposes is the public accommodations provisions of the Act (Title II).

Title II of the Act makes it unlawful for hotels, motels, restaurants, theaters, and all other public accommodations to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, and national origin; however, the law only applies to public accommodations that are engaged in interstate commerce or where the discrimination is supported by government action.  The law states, in relevant part, as follows: 

42 U.S.C. § 2000a — (a) All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.

42 U.S.C. § 2000a(b) — (b) Each of the following establishments is a place of public accommodation within this title if its operations affect commerce, or if discrimination or segregation by it is supported by State action: (1) any inn, hotel, motel, or other establishment which provides lodging to transient guests, other than an establishment located within a building which contains not more than five rooms for rent or hire and which is actually occupied by the proprietor of such establishment as his residence. (2) any restaurant, cafeteria, lunchroom, lunch counter, soda fountain, or other facility principally engaged in selling food for consumption on the premises, including, but not limited to, any such facility located on the premises of any retail establishment, or any gasoline station; (3) any motion picture house, theater, concert hall, sports arena, stadium or other place of exhibition or entertainment; and (4) any establishment (A)(i) which is physically located within the premises of any establishment otherwise covered by this subsection, or (ii) within the premises of which is physically located any such covered establishment and (B) which holds itself out as serving patrons of any such covered establishment.  

Importantly, the statute makes an exception for “private” establishments, which is not defined by the law.

42 U.S.C. § 2000a(e) — The provisions of this title shall not apply to a private club or other establishment not in fact open to the public, except to the extent that the facilities of such establishment are made available to the customers or patrons of an establishment within the scope of subsection (b).

The burden lies with the party claiming this exemption to prove that they are in fact a private club.  A number of factors are used by courts in determining whether an entity is in fact a private club, including whether membership is selective, whether there are membership fees, whether the club was founded specifically to avoid complying with Title II, and whether members exercise a high degree of control over club operations.

Title II is enforceable by the U.S. Department of Justice and through a private right of action. 

Because the legal rules governing Title II claims are complicated, an individual who believes his or her public accommodation rights have been violated should contact a qualified civil rights lawyer immediately.