Reserving the right to refuse service

In yet another topic sure to enrage, Sterling Beard – writing at The Corner – catches up with the latest news on a strange case coming to us from New Mexico. It’s now gone all the way to the state Supreme Court, and the story may be at an end. In case you hadn’t heard, wedding photographers can’t refuse to take pictures at a gay wedding or they have violated the New Mexico Human Rights Act.

The court found that Elane Photography’s refusal to serve Vanessa Willock violated the act, which “prohibits a public accommodation from refusing to offer its services to a person based on that person’s sexual orientation,” according to the ruling.

Justice Richard C. Bosson, writing in concurrence, said that the case “provokes reflection on what this nation is all about, its promise of fairness, liberty, equality of opportunity, and justice.” In addition, the case “teaches that at some point in our lives all of us must compromise, if only a little, to accommodate the contrasting values of others. A multicultural, pluralistic society, one of our nation’s strengths, demands no less.”

AP covered this story when it hit the last level in the courts, but it’s one of those areas of the law that always leave me scratching my head. When you’re talking about services provided by the government, there’s no question in cases like this. The government can’t refuse to grant a drivers license or a fishing license or what have you to somebody just because they are Jewish or black or gay or female, etc. Everyone pays for the government and everyone is entitled to equal treatment and availability of services offered. Simple enough. But what of the private sector?

When you raise the specter of “reserving the right to refuse service” in private enterprise, one of the first images evoked is the famous Whites Only Lunch Counter. Now, if you are one of the hardest of the hard core, Big L Libertarians, you’ll claim that this is still too great of an intrusion of government control on private enterprise. The argument goes that the owner will prosper or suffer as a result of the policy as the market dictates. Black diners clearly need to eat, so other competition will rise to fill that vacuum. And in the extreme case, enough people will be angered by the policy that the restricted lunch counter will be driven out of business. It’s the Invisible Hand in action.. it either high fives your or smacks you down.

But still, that image makes many, many people feel extremely uncomfortable. Maybe the government has to step in. But if they do, the policy seems to be rather selectively enforced, doesn’t it? How about when Hooters refuses to serve anyone who is a Mayor who is a serial sexually inappropriate actor? How do eateries refuse service to people with no shirt or no shoes if it’s not illegal to go barefoot or without a top? (For men, at least.) For a less silly example, how about when many cemeteries refused to bury the body of the Boston Marathon bomber? Funeral homes tend to frequently be smaller, family run operations just like photography studios, often run out of people’s homes. Could they be sued for refusing service? If so, I never heard of anyone suggesting it. But in this case, because the photographer turned down the job for a gay wedding, they have now lost in court at every level and will pay for it in cash.

This may be the wrong side of the law here, but I’m left pondering one comment I saw on Twitter shortly after this news came out.


I’m not even one of the people who oppose gay marriage, as many of you know by now, but this story just seems wrong. I suppose this is why I’m not a lawyer.