Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, public accommodations are private businesses, both for-profit and not-for-profit. A place of public accommodation is a facility whose operations affect commerce and falls into at least one of these categories:
Title III of the ADA states that places of public accommodation may not discriminate against people with disabilities and may not deny full and equal enjoyment of the goods and services they offer.
There is a specific exemption for religious entities in the ADA. There are a lot of misunderstandings about this exemption. It covers all of the programs and activities of a religious entity, even if they aren't religious programs or activities. In some cases, a religious entity rents out space and, in that situation, the religious entity is a landlord and the business that rents the space is a tenant. If the religious entity rents space to a business like a day care center or a private school, the religious entity is still exempt, but the tenant business is not, unless it is also a religious entity. So if the tenant business is not a religious entity, then the religious entity landlord is still exempt from Title III of the ADA, even if the tenant business is covered. The obligations of a landlord for a place of public accommodation under Title III do not apply if the landlord is a religious entity. If the religious entity donates space for the use of a community organization, such as a scout troop, civic club, or social group, then, in that circumstance, both the religious entity and the nonreligious entity are exempt from the requirements of Title III of the ADA. The nonreligious tenant is covered by Title III only if there is a lease that requires a payment of rent or some other consideration.
There is also an exemption for private clubs, but it works a little differently than it does for religious entities. The concept of an exemption for private clubs was first mentioned in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, sex, and national origin by places of public accommodation. When courts have interpreted the private club exemption, the issues considered include whether: members have a high degree of control over club operations; the selection of members is highly selective; there are substantial membership fees; the entity is operated on a nonprofit basis; and the club was not founded specifically to avoid being covered by federal civil rights laws. Unlike religious entities, however, private clubs, lose their exemption to the extent that they are made available for use by nonmembers as places of public accommodation. For example, if a private country club that is considered a private club for ADA purposes decides to rent space out to a retail business that is open to nonmembers, then the private club would still be exempt for all of its other operations, but it would have ADA Title III obligations for the retail business.
Title III of the ADA is enforced in a couple of different ways. Individuals can bring private lawsuits against public accommodations to get court orders to stop discrimination. People can also file complaints with the Department of Justice (DOJ), which has the authority to file suit in cases of public importance or where there is a pattern or practice of discrimination. In these cases, the DOJ may seek monetary damages and civil penalties.
For additional information regarding the obligations of places of public accommodation under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, please see our Title III: Frequently Asked Questions page. If you have a Title III question that is not answered on our website, please contact Denyse Wilhelm at (401) 462-0108.