What legal rights do users of public bathing facilities have?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Aside from the already mentioned health regulations stating that where there are toilets there must be sinks and where there are sinks there must be soap, the legal rights connected to using public bathing facilities depend, as always, on whether the place is run by the government or a private entity. The particular activities that people may undertake in the facility depend on the staffing, physical plant, and monetary resources of the place and are not a matter of law. They do not have to allow shaving or nail cutting or tooth-brushing, for example. They might only have showers, not bathtubs. They might only allow people to bathe individually to prevent people from having sexual encounters there. Law is about the way people and government behave toward each other and how society operates, it rarely ever declares that people are entitled to do any particular activity in a certain place.

Sometimes there are bathing facilities at churches, shelters, nonprofit community centers and other privately operated places that are funded by donations from individuals and businesses. These privately operated facilities are obligated to function according to the direction of their own boards and their funding sources. This means that private facilities can have their own rules and limitations about the circumstances under which they allow people to wash there or obtain hygiene supplies. It also means that they can be unfair in providing their services: allowing some people to have more time than others, excluding some people, not providing notice of rule changes, etc…

If a private agency or organization gets government funding toward a particular service, like establishing bathing facilities, there may be regulatory legal obligations connected with using that funding. The whole facility is probably not subject to those obligations,[i] only the component providing the government-funded service. To find out abut those obligations, which will probably be about the way the service is provided and the conditions of the facility, it is necessary to find out which government agency (i.e., state department of health or county department of welfare or city special grant bureau, etc…) gives that funding and then contact that government agency to obtain a copy of the regulations and instructions for interacting with them if you believe their regulations have not been followed.[ii]

Sometimes, municipalities or counties install public showers and other washing facilities as part of food banks, health clinics, community centers and other social service agencies that those government entities operate. Those kinds of facilities are considered government property because their buildings and their operations are paid for out of the ordinary tax base either through the regular budget stream or specially-dedicated government funds like limited term grants. Public users are entitled to civil rights protections when accessing these government operated facilities. The civil rights protections include things like equal access, freedom from religious impositions (i.e., they can’t force you to say a prayer or participate in religious counseling in order to obtain the service), free speech, freedom from being searched unless the search is a routine security process used for everyone, privacy…   (Read more about civil rights on Findlaw.)

All of the rights enumerated in the last paragraph are simply listed as general civil rights principles. Civil rights principles arise from the ways court cases interperet amendments to the U.S. Constitution.  So, civil rights is an area of law in which there is often not a clear rule for everyone to follow.  Rather, it is a constant analysis of comparisons:

1. weighing the government’s purpose along with its rule and

2. determining whether the rule, as applied in the situation being questioned, is structured just to serve that government interest. If it limits people unfairly by going beyond the scope of the government interest, it violates civil rights.

A helpful resource for learning about civil rights is Justia’s Annotated U.S. Constitution.  Read the sections about the Amendments to the Constitution to find easy explanations of how courts have interpreted those amendments.  Note that the list of amendments tells what subjects are covered in each amendment (due process, free speech, etc…)  Click on the hyperlinked name of any case on that site and you’ll get to the Supreme Court’s full decision.

Here are two examples demonstrating how civil rights can be outweighed by significant government interests:

  •  If a member of the public, who routinely carries a weapon, comes to the public washing facility, the facility can probably justify locking the weapon away while the visitor is on the premises because the facility has an obligation to prevent harm to its staff and users.
  • People are supposed to have the right to free speech in a public place. However, if someone comes into a washing facility and makes threatening comments to other people bathing there, the facility (i.e., the government) may be at risk of losing the victims of those comments. If the whole purpose of the washing facility is to give people a place to get clean and try to avoid disease, but people were too scared to go there, then it wouldn’t be an effective washing facility anymore unless the place refused to allow threats.

[i] The whole facility can be required to make changes in order to comply with legal requirements and accommodate the government funded part. For example, the building might have to install new doors, or fire safety devices, or a stair railing, or make other kinds of modifications to the building entrance or the building’s systems in order to make the government funded bathing service properly safe and available to public users.

[2] State agencies, such as health departments, publish their regulations in administrative codes.  All of the states’ administrative codes are available on the Internet from the National Association of Secretaries of State at http://www.administrativerules.org/.

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