LANSING, Mich. — A Michigan farmer has filed suit after being banned from selling produce at a local farmer’s market for operating his business in accordance with his beliefs on marriage.
Steve Tennes, a Roman Catholic, operates Country Mill Farms, a fruit orchard in Charlotte, Michigan. The 120-acre farm is open to the public, and also sells pies, caramel apples, donuts and other goods that may be enjoyed on-site. Each fall, hay rides, a petting zoo and other activities are offered, and Tennes also allows his back yard and farm to be used for weddings.
While he has employed homosexuals at his farm, Tennes believes it would be a violation of his faith to participate in or allow a same-sex ceremony to be conducted on his property.
Therefore, in 2014, when he was contacted by two lesbians who wanted to be “wed” in an orchard, he referred the women to another farm that does not share his convictions. Last year, two years following the incident, one of the women wrote on Country Mill Farms’ Facebook page, urging customers to stop patronizing Tennes’ business because he wouldn’t let her use his property for her ceremony.
Some customers consequently inquired about the matter and Tennes’ convictions, to which he responded that “[d]ue to [his] personal religious beliefs,” he would refer any such requests to another farm nearby.
However, when officials with the East Lansing Farmer’s Market—who had invited Tennes to participate in the market for the past six years and had publicly praised his business—learned of the matter, they asked him not to attend. Officials stated that they had received complaints and feared that there would be protests.
Tennes decided to discontinue hosting weddings of any kind on his property until he gave further consideration to the issue. He advised the city that he would be present that weekend at the farmer’s market.
There were no protests or comments from customers, and he continued to sell at the market for the rest of the season.
In December, Tennes announced that he would resume hosting weddings at his home and farm.
“The Country Mill engages in expressing its purpose and beliefs through the operation of its business and it intentionally communicates messages that promote its owners’ beliefs and declines to communicate messages that violate those beliefs,” he wrote, in part, on Facebook.
“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.”
As a result, East Lansing officials required all vendors at the farmer’s market to sign an agreement that they will comply with the city’s “public policy against discrimination … while at the [market] and as a general business practice.” The city also allegedly instructed the Market Planning Committee not to invite The Country Mill for 2017.
Tennes sent in an application after not being invited, and was denied.
“It was brought to our attention that The Country Mill’s general business practices do not comply with East Lansing’s civil rights ordinances and public policy against discrimination,” the city wrote. “… [A]s such, The Country Mill’s presence as a vendor is prohibited by the City’s Farmer’s Market vendor guidelines.”
Tennes sent the city an email requesting clarification, and officials responded with a copy of his Facebook post and the new vendor guidelines.
Therefore, Tennes filed suit out of his belief that in the city’s quest to prohibit discrimination, it is discriminating against him.
“It is a violation of the Human Relations Ordinance to exclude a person from a public service on the basis of religion,” the legal challenge states. “The City, therefore, violated the Human Relations Ordinance by excluding Country Mill from the Market based on Tennes’ statement of his religious beliefs.”
“At the same time, East Lansing permits and even celebrates speech promoting LGBT issues, including speech promoting same-sex marriage as morally and theologically equivalent to marriages between one man and one woman—a viewpoint that is directly opposite of what Tennes expressed,” it notes.
The city had allowed for the steps behind the market to be painted in rainbow colors celebrating homosexuality, as per the lawsuit, and designated a staff member to serve as liaison on homosexual and transgender issues.
“East Lansing, therefore, allows, and even openly supports and puts city resources towards, promoting LGBT issues including same-sex marriage, while punishing Plaintiffs for their viewpoint in favor of biblical marriage,” the suit states. “This is viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment.”
Tennes is consequently seeking an injunction against the city’s ban on his participation in the farmer’s market. He is being represented in court by the religious liberties organization Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).
“Americans have always had the cherished freedom to believe and to express those beliefs. 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,” said ADF Senior Counsel Jeremy Tedesco in a statement.
“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.”