Discrimination in Access to Public Places: A Survey of State and Federal Public Accommodations Laws


The civil rights movement in the United States has made enormous advances since Lester Maddox used a gun to eject three black students who entered his Atlanta restaurant in 1964. As progress has been made, the objectives of civil rights agitators and the character of their activities have changed. There is no longer a single “movement” composed of large numbers of people united around common issues. As the most egregious forms of racial discrimination have been eliminated, numerous smaller movements have arisen focus-ing on discrimination against women, handicapped people, and homosexuals. The most substantial development during the last decade has been the amendment of most state public accommodations laws to prohibit sex discrimination.A conspicuous gap remaining in the federal law is the absence of any prohibition of sex discrimination. Also, state and federal legislation has been enacted to prohibit discrimination against handicapped persons and to bar discrimination by credit institutions. These, however, have not been adequately implemented.

Although explicit racial segregation in places which are clearly public is now rare, the eradication of all types of discrimination in public accommodations is far from complete. Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the basic federal public accommodations statute, is extremely narrow and provides only minimal assistance where it is most needed-in the twelve states which have no public accommodations laws. Of the states which do have public accommodations statutes, some do not prohibit discrimination in places which are obviously public, such as cemeteries, barber shops, bars, hospitals, and retail stores. Other statutes offer little or no protection against discrimination on the basis of handicap, sex, marital status, or sexual preference.

Most states offer criminal and/or civil remedies for violation of the public accommodations statutes. However, in many cases, the remedies offered are insubstantial, and public accommodations issues rarely reach the courts. The majority of the states have organized civil rights agencies with substantial enforcement powers to augment existing civil and criminal remedies. The responsibility for enforcement of the public accommodations statutes now rests primarily with these agencies.

The purpose of this Project is to chart recent developments in public accommodations law, including the expansion of access rights to places not previously regarded as public, the proscription of discrimination against groups other than racial minorities, and the increasing role of the state civil rights commissions in enforcing discrimination law. This survey provides a basis for assessing the adequacy of existing remedies and suggests changes in state and federal law. The Project conducts a mechanical examination of the statutes on the books. It does not discuss how those laws came into existence or the actual workings of the agencies which enforce them.

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