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Can you really reserve the right to refuse service?

With the recent same-sex marriage ruling in California, more and more businesses are going to be faced with making serious, perhaps business/life-altering decisions about their operations – assuming they haven’t already.

One excellent example is the case of New Mexico wedding photographers who refused to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony in 2006.

Earlier this year, the state of New Mexico’s Human Rights Commission ruled that they had violated the rights of the gay couple who called to inquire about their photography services, and fined them $6600.

It’s easy to think in hindsight that if they were uncomfortable – for any reason – shooting the ceremony, they could have simply said “We are booked that day, sorry.

The problem is, do you also lie when the Catholic couple calls, or the bi-racial couple calls, or the Muslim couple, or the white couple, or the Jewish couple, or the Republican couple? Before long, you’re left to photographing parakeets, as long as they promise to behave:)

Seriously, I don’t mean to equate any of these groups with each other, much less with the parakeet, but the exaggeration (perhaps) makes the point clearer.

Does the context matter?

We recently talked about firing clients, in the context of them being abusive to my staff. Is that any different? What if that client had sued, saying he had the right to say whatever he wanted and still acquire our software?

Last week, Blackstar Rising blogger and professional wedding photographer Sean Cayton discussed the issues surrounding same-sex wedding photography. His comments were in the context of “if I do business with group A, will I lose the business of group B” and noted that he was watching the situation as he figures out what to do.

We’ve seen this here in Montana a little bit, as a Great Falls pharmacy decided to stop carrying birth control pills a while back, citing moral objections.

Note that they also made it clear that their profit and sales volume of those items were small and that was also part of the decision. True or not, are you obligated to carry EVERY drug, even if it doesn’t sell well? Some might question your real reasons for stopping those sales.

And that gets us to the real question…

Is it possible NOT to offend?

What is a business owner to do?

These days, in some business sectors, it’s almost impossible not to offend SOMEONE simply by opening for business in the morning. Others because they go camping with Boy Scouts, or go to the Catholic church, or volunteer at the UN Association, or carry a Sierra Club membership card, and so on.

In a lot of ways, this goes back to having your business well thought out. Knowing who your customer is, and who they aren’t. Knowing yourself, because you have to expect in today’s business and political climate, you are going to take crap for things you take part in, much less for things you feel strongly about.

And remember that it isn’t just you. Your staff plays a significant role here. It’s not hard to imagine that a religious goods store owner would try pretty hard not to hire an atheist, but they would have to be very careful how they figure that out without breaking employment law.

Yeah, with all those links, I’m sending you all over the place to ponder the impact of this, and perhaps, give you a few things to think about before one of these situations catches you unprepared. Strategically, and personally, it makes sense to have as much of this figured out as you can – but sometimes, that’s not how life is.

If you refuse service, even if it is your right, how will the market react?

Are you prepared financially and personally to deal with the outcome? Is your business structured so that you can turn away business that you don’t want. If you don’t want it (whatever IT is), is there another way to deal with those prospect?

For starters, referring them to a competitor that delivers great quality is the minimum you owe them.

Remember, your marketing and your reputation – both built intentionally – is likely what caused them to contact you. Hanging up on them because they were attracted by your success is absolutely the wrong thing to do.

When you hang out a shingle, you invite the public to deal with you. None of us is perfect, least of all, me.

How you react to the folks who “bother you” – regardless of the reason – is just as important as how you react to your ideal client.

Both deserve courtesy.

11 replies on “Can you really reserve the right to refuse service?”

I find it a bit bizarre that people mix religion with business. I mean in what other business do you ask someone buying from you what their sexual orientation is? Living in South Africa there is a big stigma around discrimination of any kind – a local album manufacturer recently announced that they would not print albums of same sex weddings. We now source our wedding albums from the US.

Johannesburg Wedding Photographers last blog post..Soutpansberg and Baobabs


I dont believe they asked in the case I referred to. In this case, the prospective clients made note of it when they called.

As you note, in most business environments, you’d never have an idea – and I suspect very few would ask.

In the case of a wedding, it’ll become fairly obvious, fairly early in the process:)

Thanks for commenting – and for reading my blog.


If I start a business and I want to sell a product that is made by a company I used to work for, can they refuse to sell their product to me?


While it may (or may not be) short-sighted on their part, I don’t see why not. Surely they aren’t the only fish in the sea. Source it elsewhere if you must.

What if I can only get this product from my former employer? They almost have a monopoly – there are maybe two other companies that make this item but their product, by far, is not as good.


Here are a few other choices.

1) Make amends. I realize this may not be possible depending on the people involved, much less the situation.

2) Find a middleman to buy the product from them and sell it to you, which might include someone who already resells their product (or buys it wholesale)

3) Make the product yourself.

4) Get the competitors to make a better product.

5) Find a substitute to this item.

first of all its you who decided wheter or not you want to lend your services to someone…if you dont feel comfortable then noone should make you do it.

This is such an interesting issue. I find it very scary, in this era of “tolerance”, rights (in particular the right to choose) and political correctness, to be forced to accept anything. You are talking from a business perspective, but in everyday life we are faced with situations where we are forced to see things we find disturbing, to accept things that are painful or simply unacceptable to us, and even to perform acts that are contrary to our intuitions and good sense. Should a Catholic doctor be obliged to perform abortions if he wishes to keep his job? Or a pharmacist to sell the pill? Or a restaurant owner accept gay couples if his usual clientele is families and children ? I would say no, but I agree with you that there are subtle and not hateful ways of refusing a service…

PS I love your picture. That baby is absolutely adorable.

There’s always a way to have a conversation with someone you may not agree with. The question is, are you willing to make the effort? Thats what everyone has to ask themselves. Thanks re: my granddaughter. She is kinda cute, isnt she?:)

Isabel, you draw a parallel between the contradiction of a Christian doctor performing abortions and the contradiction of a restaurant owner providing service to gay couples and families with children; but I fail to see the similarity in these circumstances. Assuming the doctor’s Christian values bar abortion, her performing abortions would entail a contradiction; but does a similar opposition exist for the restaurant owner? Which of her values would be compromised by feeding homosexuals? Where is the contradiction in providing a service to both hetero and homosexuals?

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