The City of East Lansing Michigan has banned a farmer from selling at a local farmer’s market after he voiced his religious beliefs regarding marriage.
Country Mill farm and the Tennes Family
Steve and Bridget Tennes have operated a small farm in Michigan for many years. In addition to farming and selling their produce to local residents, the couple’s farm, called “Country Mill”, hosts annual corn mazes, birthday parties, weddings, and other events.
In 2014, two women approached Tennes seeking to use his farm for their marriage. It should be noted that this request occurred prior to the 2015 Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, that legalized same-sex marriages within the U.S.
Tennes respectfully declined, informing the women that Country Mill did not host same-sex weddings because of the owner’s religious beliefs. He referred the women to a nearby venue that would accommodate their request.
Religious expression attacked
After the two women were married, one of the women wrote a Facebook post discouraging others from doing business with Country Mill farm.
Tennes posted a response, saying, “It remains our deeply held religious belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman and Country Mill has the First Amendment right to express and act upon its beliefs. For this reason, Country Mill reserves the right to deny a request for services that would require it to communicate, engage in, or host expression that violates the owners’ sincerely held religious beliefs and conscience.”
East Lansing bans the family from the local farmer’s market
The women complained to surrounding cities where the Tennes’ sold their produce, and an official from the city of East Lansing, Michigan responded. At first, he simply advised Tennes to discontinue selling his farm produce at the city’s farmers market because it would incite protests. However, no protests occurred. The Tennes’ continued to sell at the market as they have for the past 6 years, and no one complained.
Disgruntled, in October, East Lansing formally banned the Tennes from selling their produce at the local farmer’s market. The city claimed that Steve Tennes’ Facebook post espousing his religious beliefs violated the city’s ordinance prohibiting discrimination. Interestingly, however, the city took no action against another vendor who expressed an opposing religious belief, supporting gay marriage.
Religious discrimination lawsuit filed against East Lansing
Tennes and his wife filed a lawsuit on Wednesday with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, against the city of East Lansing, for religious discrimination. Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal aid organization, is representing the couple.
The lawsuit highlights East Lansing’s apparent hypocrisy in punishing the Tennes’ for expressing their own religious beliefs, while ignoring the expressions of others who express opposing religious beliefs, the very definition of “discrimination”:
“Plaintiffs support the rights of citizens and other businesses to express their views about marriage. Plaintiffs simply seek to enjoy the same freedom.”
“East Lansing’s policy strips plaintiffs of their constitutional freedoms, including free speech and the free exercise of religion, by punishing plaintiffs’ viewpoint on marriage, going so far as to prohibit Country Mill from continuing its long history of participating in the farmers market because plaintiffs publicly stated their sincerely held religious view that marriage is a union between one man and one woman.”
The lawsuit also notes that the Tennes’ farm “has employed people from a wide variety of racial, cultural, and religious backgrounds, including members of the LGBT community.”
Supreme Court considering several religious liberty cases
The lawsuit comes at a time when religious freedoms are being attacked throughout the United States. As is the case with East Lansing, people are being silenced or punished for expressing their religious beliefs. In some cases, individuals have even been forced to violate their religious beliefs.
In April, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Trinity Lutheran Church v. Pauley that could determine to what lengths a state or local government may ban public funding for religious affiliated organizations. That high court is also considering taking up a case of Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a case that tests the balance between one’s freedom of religious expression, and one’s duty to others.
Support Country Mill Orchard
Individuals wishing to support the Tennes family while they fight to preserve their right to religious expression, may visit the couple’s farm, Country Mill, located at 4648 Otto Rd, Charlotte, Michigan, 48813. The farm’s website may be found at www.countrymillfarms.com.