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The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear a New Mexico case over whether a business can refuse to serve gay and lesbian customers, leaving the New Mexico Supreme Court's decision intact.
In August 2013, the New Mexico High Court ruled that a wedding-photography business that offered its services to the general public could not, under New Mexico's anti-discrimination laws, refuse to serve clients because they are gay -- even if that refusal is based on religious beliefs.
With the U.S. Supreme Court avoiding the issue, many business owners may wonder how the New Mexico decision will affect their business practices.
Each state has its own laws preventing discrimination by private businesses, generally called public accommodation laws. These laws prevent employers who do business with the general public from discriminating based on race, color, religion, national origin, and in some states, sexual orientation.
New Mexico's public accommodations law specifically prohibits a business from "refusing to offer its services" to any person based on his or her sexual orientation. Despite that law, when Elane Photography was contacted by a lesbian couple hoping to have their wedding-style ceremony photographed, they were told that Elane Photography did not photograph same-sex ceremonies.
The New Mexico Supreme Court held that refusing to photograph the couple's ceremony was tantamount to discrimination based on sexual orientation. Similarly, it found that complying with New Mexico's public accommodations laws did not violate Elane Photography's First Amendment rights.
The court explained that Elane Photography could, for example, post a disclaimer voicing its opposition to same-sex marriage, but it could not refuse to serve a couple based on that belief.
For photographers and others in the wedding industry, there is still an active question: Can we refuse to serve same-sex couples?
It depends on state and local laws. Arizona's governor recently vetoed a bill that would have allowed businesses to deny service to same-sex couples based on religious freedom, and other states have similar bills pending. Many states, like Arizona and Oklahoma, do not include sexual orientation in their public accommodation laws, so many businesses are free to refuse service to gay and lesbian couples.
Even if your state is silent on protections for same-sex couples, each city may have its own more restrictive anti-discrimination laws. To find out how this affects your business' policies toward gays and lesbians, you may want to contact a municipal law attorney today.
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