Reserving the Right to Refuse Service

By Beacon Staff

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.

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 (the decision is being appealed).

It’s easy to think in hindsight that if they were uncomfortable shooting the ceremony, they could have simply said “We are booked that day, sorry”, and dismissed the caller without causing a fuss.

The question is, are you also booked 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?

If so, it won’t be long before you’re left to photographing still life. It’s hard to keep a business open that way.

Does the context matter?

A few columns ago, we talked about firing abusive clients. Is that different? What if the abusive customer sues, saying they have the right to service regardless of their behavior? I know what *I* say about that, but I’m not the courts.

Last week, Blackstar Rising blogger and Colorado Springs professional wedding photographer Sean Cayton talked about this issue. 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 how his community will react. As expected, his public pondering of the question prompted outrage among some.

This isn’t new to Montana, not long ago a Great Falls pharmacy decided to stop carrying birth control pills a while back, citing moral objections.

They also indicated that the profit and sales volume of those items were small and that was a factor in the decision. Are pharmacies obligated to carry every drug, even those that don’t sell well? Depends on who you ask.

No matter what you do, you’re going to offend someone.

These days, you can do so simply by opening the doors. Others will be offended because you work with the Boy Scouts, or go to a Catholic church, or volunteer at the UN Association, or carry a Sierra Club membership card.

You should 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 probably even for things that don’t concern you – because you said they don’t concern you.

And remember that it isn’t just you. Your staff plays a significant role in this as well.

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.

Strategically, and personally, it makes sense to figure out in advance how you’ll handle these issues.

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

Is your business structured so that you can turn away business that you don’t want, assuming you can do so legally? And when you turn away that business, what can you do?

Start by referring them to a competitor that delivers great quality. That is the minimum you owe them.

The independent streak in you is likely to think – “I don’t own anyone a damned thing”.

And you might have every right to feel that way…until you consider that your marketing and your reputation for delivering quality were both built intentionally by you, with the intent of attracting more (and presumably better) customers.

Hanging up on them because they were attracted by your success is the wrong thing to do, no matter who they are.

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 common (or perhaps, uncommon) courtesy, no matter how much you may dislike something about them.

Want to learn more about Mark or ask him to write about a business, operations or marketing problem? See Mark’s site or contact him at

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