Can a Business Just Say No?

“No shirt, no shoes, no service.” It is not uncommon to see signs like this marking a clear line when a business will refuse to serve a customer. But are there other times that a business can say no to a potential customer?

A recent court case highlights the potential risks. A New Mexico photographer turned down a job to take wedding photos. The wedding was a same-sex marriage and the photographer reportedly stated that she only did traditional weddings. The same-sex couple was quickly able to get another photographer, but then filed a complaint with the New Mexico Human Rights Commission.

The New Mexico courts found that the photographer violated anti-discrimination laws in turning down the job. Regardless of your personal views of same-sex marriages, it does pose a very real question about when businesses can say no to customers or situations that either go against a business owner’s personal beliefs or could be a situation that the business has other concerns.

In the case of a wedding, what if the couple was incorporating some type of satanic elements and the photographers were religiously opposed? Or what if the couple was Neo Nazi and the photographer did not want to be part of that ceremony?

Perhaps more typical, would be situations where a customer just seems too difficult or demanding and it seems like a better business decision to walk away rather than risk creating a bad business relationship. We have all seen on some level examples of businesses struggling to deal with a difficult or challenging customer. These could be on a large scale with big business operations or even small businesses turning down a single customer. In one case, a home estate seller walked away from a pending client after a brief argument about access to the home during the sale, leaving the homeowner high and dry. The estate seller apparently felt that the potential arguments and aggravation was worth less than the potential income.

The problem with turning a failed non-deal into an anti-discrimination case means that individuals who are told no could crowd the legal system with accusations of discrimination whether that was the reason or not. In the case of the photographer, the owner could have walked away and simply lied, stating that she was overbooked that date. By being honest, the photographer opened herself up to the anti-discrimination case. On the flip side, if the photographer had backed out for truly being overbooked or not available, the would-be customers could still file an anti-discrimination complaint, if the customers are considered some protected group.

This poses a very valid risk of false accusations and intrusive government compliance. More importantly, is the impact on the individuals who make up a business, especially small businesses. Ultimately, businesses are comprised of individuals with their own beliefs, values and sense of right and wrong. There will be grey areas, but businesses do not need more obstacles in the form of regulation and individuals, even as business owners, should not lose their rights or liberties.   


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Eric Smith, CPP is the leading authority on organizational self-defense. He has extensive experience in law enforcement as well as security management. Eric is available for staff education and security awareness training as well as business coaching to help organizations provide safe workplaces. To learn more email Eric at businesskarate dot com.



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  1. Eric,

    It wasn't that long ago that businesses could refuse to serve persons of color, persons of different religious faiths, or even an unaccompanied female. I'm pretty sure you don't mean to suggest we return to that level of unlawful individual discretion. Rather than backsliding we need to find a way to move forward that protects the rights of all involved, and sometimes it takes public law to shape the new normal. Fifty years from now bias on the basis of sexual preference will probably look as antiquated as bias on the basis of skin color does to us.

    Be well,


    1. I thought that might be a concern. There are laws that were created and needed and this is not about changing existing discrimination laws. On the other hand, we have a very diverse and open society and should be extremely careful to consider true harm to others when taking away individual freedoms from business owners. It is a touchy subject with a lot of grey, but as a whole, we tend to take some protections too far when looked at through the lens of our society on a broader level.

      I do think that this will become more of an issue rather than less. As a society, we need to decide where those boundaries will be set, based on true needs rather than what is politically correct at the moment.