Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Gay Marriage and the Wedding Professional

Here in Maine we're preparing for a big vote on November 3, which is unusual in an off-year election. Last spring our state's legislature and governor passed a law legalizing same-sex marriage, and depending on our response to Question One in November's Referendum, Maine could be the first state to support our gay marriage law with a popular vote. At this point it is difficult to say which way the state will go, so everyone is watching, and waiting. And arguing. What a divisive issue!

I do a lot of reading about weddings, and some time ago I came across this story of a wedding photographer in New Mexico who was approached by a same-sex couple to photograph their commitment ceremony (New Mexico does not allow same-sex marriage). The photographer declined, telling the couple that she was a Christian and because of her beliefs, she didn't photograph same-sex ceremonies. The couple sued the photographer and won: the Human Rights Commission in NM found her guilty of discrimination and ordered her to pay nearly $7,000 for the couple's legal fees.

I've seen this story repeated many times in recent months, often by business owners concerned about being "forced" to offer services against their own beliefs. If we uphold this law in Maine--and if other states follow the six who already have same-sex marriage laws--there will be a lot of lawsuits like this one, and a lot of questions that will need answers. For example, what takes precedence in a business situation: my religious beliefs, or your right not to be discriminated against? If you "force" me to provide a product or service against my beliefs, is this also discrimination? Some states have added religious protections to their same-sex marriage laws to deal with the conflicts between rights. It's still a very complicated issue, with questions I'm not qualified to answer. The question I can answer, though, is how I address this issue within my own business.

Over the years, I've prepared thousands of favors and gifts for many weddings and wedding-related events, including same-sex commitment ceremonies and civil unions. When customers place orders at my site, they specify their personalization, including names, and I add them to the labels and tags as typed. The customer then has the opportunity to make corrections to a draft that I email before printing and assembling their favors. This process is the same for every customer, without exception. I decided a long time ago that my business was about making people feel special, but I've never liked the idea that some people have to be left out in order for others to feel special. This is why I've kept my prices and my minimums low: even the smallest events and the tightest budgets can afford my kind of special. That's also why I'm just as happy to get an order from "Tammy and Steve" as from "Tammy and Lisa". I love that Tammy and Steve AND Tammy and Lisa choose my products to share at their celebrations! I like making them feel special, too.

A question that I haven't seen discussed as often, but which I think should be considered by wedding couples, is this: does "forcing" a business to provide you with a product or service against their beliefs give you the best product or service? While it certainly may be discrimination for a photographer or other professional to refuse to work with you in certain circumstances, the reality is that if for some reason they cannot provide you with their best work, you will be much happier finding a vendor who can. Many same-sex couples are now turning to sites like Rainbow Wedding Network and Queerly Wed to find what the latter site calls "queer friendly" vendors. There are many professionals who will be excited to take part in your celebration, and these sites make it easier to find them. If you own a "queer-friendly" business, check out these sites to see how you can add your business to their lists.

I also think that it's important for business owners to be aware of anti-discrimination laws and how they can affect you. Business owners with certain religious beliefs are already afraid that same-sex marriage laws will put them in the position of having to choose between "your conscience or your livelihood." While businesses turn away jobs every day for a variety of reasons, there are some reasons that may offend potential customers or, at worst, are considered discriminatory. Know your rights, understand the law, and remember that being respectful toward everyone, regardless of whether you agree with them, just makes good sense--from a human and business perspective.

What do you think? Does your state have a same-sex marriage law? Does this issue affect you personally, or impact your job or business? Please share your thoughts!

Cake topper photo from istockphoto.com

4 comments:

  1. Well done!
    I can't imagine "forcing" someone to participate in my ceremony -- it is supposed to be a joyous event filled with love. Who needs such negative energy mucking up the works. Besides, I have chosen to surround myself with people who are not fundamentally opposed to who I am.

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  2. Thanks, Brad. I can't imagine that, either. I think it's sad that people have to consider "friend or foe" when they're selecting wedding vendors, but unfortunately for some that's true. The good news is that it's easier all the time to find friends in this business!

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  3. Excellent post, Emily, raising incredibly important issued for small businesses. I've never confronted anything like this before but I do feel for the photographer and the couple. For different reasons. It seems to me that what will start to happen is businesses in the photographer's position will simply start turning down the business and not giving a reason. This is what began to happen where racisal discrimination is concerned. If you don' t provide a reason - just say you're busy or not hiring/taking new clients, the nastiness is avoided. Of course that's not optimal bit it's usually what I see happen.

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  4. Donna Maria, I think you're right...businesses WILL turn down jobs and not give a reason. That may not be ideal--ideally everyone would be comfortable with everyone else. But that's not reality, and it probably never will be.

    There are definitely ways to avoid "nastiness" as you call it, without offending people. I felt bad for both sides in this situation, as well, because I think it didn't have to happen this way. Thank you for sharing your opinion!

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