The Federal Civil Rights Act guarantees all people the right to "full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin."
The right of public accommodation is also guaranteed to disabled citizens under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which precludes discrimination by businesses on the basis of disability.
In addition to the protections against discrimination provided under federal law, many states have passed their own Civil Rights Acts that provide broader protections than the Federal Civil Rights Act. For example, California's Unruh Civil Rights Act makes it illegal to discriminate against individuals based on unconventional dress or sexual preference.
In the 1960s, the Unruh Civil Rights Act was interpreted to provide broad protection from arbitrary discrimination by business owners. Cases decided during that era held that business owners could not discriminate, for example, against hippies, police officers, homosexuals, or Republicans, solely because of who they were.
Like many issues involving constitutional law, the law against discrimination in public accommodations is in a constant state of change. Some argue that anti-discrimination laws in matters of public accommodations create a conflict between the ideal of equality and individual rights.
Does the guaranteed right to public access mean the business owner's private right to exclude is violated? For the most part, courts have decided that the constitutional interest in providing equal access to public accommodations outweighs the individual liberties involved.