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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  • Michael C

    The state of Michigan does not protect gay citizens from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations. It is totally legal for businesses to fire employees just because they’re gay, deny people housing just because they’re gay, and refuse them service at stores, restaurants, etc. just because they’re gay.

    A handful of cities (like East Lansing) have adopted their own local ordinances to protect gay citizens from discrimination within their city limits.

    Here’s the problem, the East Lansing Farmer’s Market tried to apply their local laws to this farmer’s business practices in a different city. That was wrong. I’m glad the court ruled in his favor.

    That being said, it’s ridiculous that Michigan legislators continue to refuse protect their gay and transgender citizens from discrimination in the same ways that Christians have been protected for decades.

    • bowie1

      Are there not other venues where people can choose to marry if in a non-church setting? Our pastor recently performed a Christian wedding at a local golf club for one of our members and his fiancee.

      • Michael C

        I’m afraid I don’t understand the point you’re trying to make. I said that I believe that gay people should have the same protections from discrimination that Christians enjoy.

        It’s illegal in all of the US for businesses to discriminate on the basis of a person’s religion.

        This means that this farmer would not be permitted to refuse to allow a Jewish couple to accept the business’ public offer to rent out their facilities for a wedding.

        “There are other venues for those people” is not an acceptable excuse for illegal discrimination.

        • “Tennes also ‘allows’ his back yard and farm to be used for weddings.” It is his property, period. His business is not weddings, it is running a farm.

          • Michael C

            It is his property, period. His business is not weddings, it is running a farm.

            Country Mills Farms is a business. One aspect of their business is running a wedding venue for parties as large as 400 guests and they charge $2,000 – $3,000 per wedding.

            Being a business, Country Mills Farms is obligated to obey all laws applicable to businesses. This includes local, state, and federal civil rights laws.

            In the vast majority of Michigan, including where the Country Mills Farm is located, businesses are free to fire people from their jobs just because they’re gay, deny them a place to live just because they’re gay, and refuse them service at stores, restaurants, etc. just because they’re gay.

            Country Mills Farms would not be permitted to refuse to rent out their venue to a Jewish or Muslim couple (for example) even though it’s their property. Period.

          • wandakate

            Yes precisely…It’s HIS farm. The farm doesn’t belong to the city, it’s NOT on city property, it’s on Private property…And again YES, his business is running a farm, it’s NOT primarily hosting weddings. I wouldn’t live in a place that’s so picky that will change their rules just to punish a CHRISTIAN, but the Bible calls it Christian persecution of which there will be much more of in the years to come.

      • wandakate

        People marry in the mountains, at a beautiful like, on farms, in parks, lots of places besides churches…A golf club would be a little odd, but each to his own preference.

    • wandakate

      Makes me glad we don’t live in Michigan and will NOT be visiting there either…If the farmer doesn’t want to allow gay unions on his OWN PERSONAL property then that should be his right. It’s his own business what he does on his OWN property…If he’s a tx paying citizen and isn’t harming anybody then leave the man alone.

      • Michael C

        It’s his own business what he does on his OWN property…

        That’s incorrect. It’s not his own “personal” property. He may own the business but the property actually belongs to the business. Businesses are obligated to obey laws applicable to businesses.

        Still confused? Let’s say I want to open a restaurant. My business procures funds to purchase a plot of land and construct a building on that site. While (as the owner of the business) I officially own the property, it’s not really my “personal” property.

        I would not be permitted to hang a sign in the restaurant window saying “No Blacks” because businesses are prohibited from this type of discrimination. I could, however, hang a sign that says “No Blacks” in the window of my home (my actual personal property). Even if my business was located in my home, my business still wouldn’t be permitted to discriminate against black people, though.

        There’s a difference between “business property” and “personal property.”

        Does that make sense?

  • Jack-b-Quicker

    Why does it matter? I think the problem with Western society in general is that they continue to produce dumber and dumber offspring that eventually destroys everything their ancestors built. You saw it with the Greeks and the Romans, and now modern western civilization is going through it AGAIN. See ya on the other side of collapse.