Judge Rules City Can’t Ban Farmer From Selling at Market for Conducting Business in Accordance With Religious Beliefs

Photo Credit: Country Mill Facebook page

LANSING, Mich. — A federal judge has granted an injunction to a Michigan farmer who was banned from selling at a local farmer’s market for operating his business in accordance with his beliefs on marriage.

“The City of East Lansing must grant Country Mill Farms any necessary license and allow Country Mill Farms to sell its goods at the East Lansing Farmer’s Market for the remainder of the 2017 season,” ordered U.S. District Court Judge Paul Maloney on Friday. “The City of East Lansing may enforce the vendor guidelines against Country Mill Farms, with the exception that Country Mill Farms may not be found in violation of the guidelines for declining to host same-sex wedding ceremonies at the Country Mill Farms.”

“On the evidence before this court, the City amended its vendor guidelines and then used the changes to deny Country Mill’s vendor application,” he wrote. “There exists a substantial likelihood that Plaintiffs will be able to prevail on the merits of their claims for speech retaliation and for free exercise of religion.”

As previously reported, 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.

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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 in June out of his belief that in the City’s quest to prohibit discrimination, it was rather discriminating against him.

On Friday, a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction, stating that it is apparent that the City changed its policies to target Tennes and his religious beliefs.

“The context in which the vendor guidelines were amended and then applied to Country Mill supports Plaintiffs’ claim that their religious beliefs or their religiously-motivated conduct was the target of the City’s actions,” Maloney wrote.

“A factfinder could infer that the change in the vendor guidelines was motivated by Plaintiffs’ religious beliefs or their religiously-motivated conduct. And, the City’s hostility to Plaintiffs’ religion or religious conduct was then manifested when the City used its facially neutral and generally applicable ordinance to deny Plaintiffs’ vendor application,” he reiterated.

Maloney said that the City has not proven that its actions are justified in light of Tennes’ right to free exercise of religion.

“For this motion, the City has not asserted that the change the vendor guidelines and the ordinance are justified by a compelling interest or that the vendor guidelines and the ordinance are narrowly tailored to advance that interest,” he wrote. “Elsewhere, the City has argued that sexual orientation anti-discrimination laws are valid. That proposition, by itself, does not accomplish what the City must show to undermine Plaintiffs’ free exercise claim.”

The religious liberties group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which represented Tennes in court, cheered the outcome of the first round of the legal battle.

“Just like all Americans, a farmer should be free to live and speak according to his deeply held religious beliefs without fear of government punishment,” Legal Counsel Kate Anderson said in a statement. “As the court found, East Lansing officials changed their market policy to shut out Steve because they don’t like his … beliefs regarding marriage. The court was right to issue this order, which will allow Steve to return to the 2017 farmer’s market while his case moves forward.”

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