This sounds like the beginning of a bad joke: “A guy with a Trump hat walks into a bar and…” It’s not a joke. It actually happened in New York City in January 2017 and the guy, Greg Piatek, was wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. An employee at “The Happiest Hour” bar allegedly provided Piatek with poor service. After complaining to bar staff, one employee allegedly told him, “Anyone who supports Trump-or believes in what you believe-is not welcome here! And you need to leave right now because we won’t serve you!” Piatek then sued the bar, alleging discrimination. Was the bar’s conduct illegal?
The analysis starts with a discussion of the most relevant discrimination laws that Piatek could encounter during his attempt to support his lawsuit. He would likely point to the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination by privately owned places of public accommodation on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin. Places of “public accommodation” include, but are not limited to, venues like restaurants, theaters, banks, hotels, and stores.
Piatek initially argued that the bar offended “his sense of being American.” It was correctly pointed out to him that laws don’t protect against those types of beliefs under these circumstances. After he learned that his best chance of keeping his suit alive was to allege a violation of his religious beliefs, he pivoted. He then claimed that his hat reflected a deeply held “spiritual belief” and claimed that it was worn as a “spiritual tribute” while going to the 9/11 memorial right before he went to the bar.
As you probably guessed, the judge didn’t buy his religious discrimination argument. The judge actually referred to the incident as “petty” and threw the lawsuit out of court. The judge correctly found that the law doesn’t prohibit political discrimination.
The judge’s ruling was 100% correct. Businesses have a right to serve who they want as long as they don’t violate the law. The law doesn’t prohibit discrimination against someone displaying support for Trump.
Before anyone makes this political, let’s change the facts. Let’s say the hat displayed support for Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. The analysis and ruling would still be the same. As long as the message is a political one, regardless of whether it’s pro democrat or pro republican, businesses can exercise their discretion and choose not to be of service.
Other laws which Piatek may have encountered would be the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits private businesses from discriminating against disabled individuals. He correctly failed to argued that being a Trump supporter makes him disabled. While it would have likely resonated with many in the “court of public opinion,” that wouldn’t have had much merit in a court of law.
Finally, while federal law does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, there are approximately 20 states that make it unlawful to do so. New York, where Piatek had his unpleasant encounter is one of those states. Unfortunately, there would be no merit for him to argue that his treatment had anything to do with his sexual orientation.
The judge did the right thing here in throwing out this lawsuit. The ruling has nothing to do with what was written on that hat. Any alleged poor treatment he received based on political discrimination, whether it be in favor of republicans or democrats, is lawful.