LANSING, Mich. — Catholic farmer Steve Tennes says the city of East Lansing, Michigan, illegally barred his family-run farm from the city farmer’s market because of his family’s religious beliefs about marriage.
“We have attended the city of East Lansing farmer’s market for the past seven years. We have always lovingly provided everything we grow and make at our farm to customers of all beliefs and backgrounds,” Tennes’ Country Mill Farms said on its Facebook page May 31.
“We enjoyed a great working relationship with the city of East Lansing up until 2016, when city officials learned about our family’s religious beliefs that we stated on our Facebook page.”
The farm, based outside the city in Charlotte, Michigan, charged that the city officials’ new policy bars them from the market “solely because we publicly stated beliefs that they do not like.”
Tennes’ farm has filed a lawsuit against the city in the U.S. District Court in the Western District of Michigan with the aid of the legal group Alliance Defending Freedom.
Jeremy Tedesco, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, explained the complaint.
“This lawsuit simply asks the court to uphold that freedom for a Catholic farmer, who should be free to sell his produce without coercion, discrimination or intimidation by the government because of his beliefs about marriage,” Tedesco said.
“The city must respect Steve’s constitutionally protected freedom to express his religious beliefs on social-media sites without being forced to surrender his right to participate in the marketplace.”
The lawsuit charged that the city policy violated free speech, freedom of religion and equal protection. It asks the federal court to halt the policy and award nominal and compensatory damages.
The farm has hosted wedding ceremonies in its orchard, but reconsidered its policy last year. On Aug. 24, 2016, Tennes posted on the farm’s Facebook page, saying that, due to the owners’ personal religious beliefs, he would refer any requests for a same-sex ceremony to another nearby orchard.
After an East Lansing official saw the post, officials told Country Mill Farms they did not want it to be present at the farmer’s market scheduled the following Sunday. According to the lawsuit, officials said that they had received complaints about Tennes’ post and that protests against the market would occur. They urged the farm to withdraw from the market immediately.
Tennes nonetheless took his farm’s produce to the market. There were no protests.
Another Facebook post in December 2016 said that wedding ceremonies would resume at the farm’s orchard, explaining: “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.”
The message also said its religious beliefs include that all people should be treated with respect and dignity.
That post caused East Lansing officials to think Tennes’ views conflicted with the city’s view of marriage and sexual orientation, expressed in its “Human Relations Ordinance.” The ordinance could not be enforced against the farm. According to Alliance Defending Freedom, officials then made a new policy requiring vendors to comply with the ordinance and anti-discrimination policy “while at the market and as a general business practice.”
The new policy bars making a statement that “indicates that an individual’s patronage or presence at a place of public accommodation” is “unwelcome or acceptable” for certain classes, including sexual orientation or gender identity.
When Country Mill Farms applied to participate in the 2017 farmer’s market, a city official sent a letter telling Tennes that he was prohibited from participating because he was not in compliance with the new policy. It included an attachment of the December Facebook post.
In a May 31 statement responding to the lawsuit, East Lansing said Country Mill Farms “advertised that their business practice is to prohibit same-sex couples from holding weddings at their orchard,” in violation of the city policy.
“Their business practices violate the city of East Lansing’s long-standing ordinance that protects sexual orientation as well as the Supreme Court’s ruling that grants the right for same-sex couples to be married,” the city claimed.
Alliance Defending Freedom charged that the new policy exceeded the city’s jurisdiction and did not define “discrimination” or any key terms relevant for enforcement.
“All Steve wants to do is sell his food to anyone who wants to buy it, but the city isn’t letting him,” said Kate Anderson, legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom.
“People of faith, like the Tennes family, should be free to live and work according to their deeply held beliefs without fear of losing their livelihood. If the government can shut down a family farmer just because of the religious views he expresses on Facebook — by denying him a license to do business and serve fresh produce to all people — then no American is free.”