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Wedding companies that shun gays feel impact, for better or worse

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To opponents, they're civil-rights violators; to supporters, they're advocates for religious freedom. These florists, bakers and photographers who refuse to work on same-sex unions are also small business owners, and while the legal ramifications of their decisions are being determined in courts across the country, their customers' wallets ultimately will reward or punish their decisions.

"When you open your doors to the public ... it's in your interest to serve everyone, not picking and choosing," said Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, a campaign that supports legal gay marriage nationwide.

In some cases, it's also the law. Same-sex couples in several states have filed discrimination claims against businesses that refused to work with them. In August, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled against a photographer who refused to photograph a lesbian couple's ceremony, citing religious beliefs.

"Whenever we redefine marriage, one of the first casualties is the religious liberties of people of faith," said Chris Plante, spokesman for the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes gay marriage.

Wedding vendors who won't work with gay and lesbian couples and the groups that support them say working on same-sex weddings constitutes an endorsement of same-sex marriage, which impedes their freedom of religion.

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New Mexico's Supreme Court rejected this argument, saying, "It is well known to the public that wedding photographers are hired by paying customers and that a photographer may not share the happy couple's views."

Florist Jody Fairchild-Vandekrol, owner of Flowers on Fourth in Grinnell, Iowa, said she doesn't personally know anyone who wouldn't work on a gay or lesbian wedding. But the past president of the Iowa Florists' Association acknowledges that it could depend on the local political climate. "If you're in a more conservative community and if you did take gay and lesbian weddings, the town might look at you differently," she said.

Some businesses have benefited when they speak out against gay marriage. In eastern Washington state, florist Barronelle Stutzman of Arlene's Flowers and Gifts has seen her Richland business grow since being sued by the state's attorney general in April, said her attorney, Justin Bristol. Stutzman referred requests for comment to Bristol.

"It's helped her business," he said, saying Stutzman's revenues have grown by 3 percent or 4 percent since her refusal to make wedding floral arrangements for a longtime gay customer made news. "She's received a tremendous amount of support from the community," Bristol said. The publicity generated by the incident has increased her customer base, he said.

(Read more: What wedding crashers are costing the hotel biz)

Even larger businesses can be affected by these kinds of disputes. After Dan Cathy, president of fast-food chain Chick-fil-A, talked about his disapproval of same-sex marriage in an interview last year, gay-rights groups organized a protest. But former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee rallied supporters for a "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day," which the company said generated record sales.

Smaller businesses don't have that kind of public exposure, though.

"Anytime that you're not open to the needs of any kind of demographic in your community, you're really shutting yourself off," said Fairchild-Vandekrol. "I think anyone that wouldn't take on a homosexual wedding would be really shooting themselves in the foot in today's world. I think times are changing."

Being on the front lines of the culture wars probably wasn't something these vendors sought out, said Marcia Horowitz, senior executive vice president at public relations company Rubenstein Associates, Inc.

"The owners of these businesses do put their business and whether it hurts their business as secondary …. It is their ideological belief that whatever they believe at home is something they need to follow in their business practices," she said. "Maybe they are happy to become the symbols of the movement, but I still believe they don't do it as a business decision."

Like marriage itself, these vendors are taking on the business impact of their decisions, for better or worse. On Facebook and Yelp, far-flung supporters and opponents of wedding companies that won't offer their services to same-sex couples are vocal in their opinions, but whether this position helps or hurts an owner's business depends on local opinion, Horowitz said.

"In terms of whether it's good or bad, it probably depends on the community they serve and the place where they are located," she said.

Earlier this year, the Colorado Civil Rights Division determined Masterpiece Cakeshop had discriminated against a gay couple who tried to buy a wedding cake from owner Jack Phillips in 2012, and the state's attorney general has taken up the case.

Phillips referred questions to his attorney, Nicolle Martin, who said that if Phillips loses the case, he would stop making wedding cakes entirely rather than cater to same-sex couples, which would crush his business. "Everybody knows you charge a premium for wedding cakes," Martin said. "Being threatened with the closure of your business because of your religious beliefs hurts his business."

But as Jennifer Pizer, law and policy project director at gay-rights advocacy group Lambda Legal, put it, "If you permit religious views to trump the nondiscrimination law, the nondiscrimination law becomes worthless."

Pizer referred to earlier civil-rights cases, such as landlords refusing to rent to mixed-race couples and restaurant owners with segregated dining rooms, as antecedents to today's disputes. "History tells us there were white people who felt very strongly that the races should not mix, that God disapproved," she said. "Business owners are free to express their views. What they're not free to do is turn people away."

However, Bruce Hausknecht, judicial analyst for conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, said a lot of business owners are being forced to choose between faith and their business.

"People don't understand the difference between good discrimination and bad discrimination," he said. He defined "good discrimination" as "freedom of conscience."

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