Civil Suit of Farmer Banned From Market for Not Allowing Same-Sex Ceremonies on Property to Go to Trial

LANSING, Mich. — A civil lawsuit filed by a Michigan farmer who was banned from selling at a farmer’s market for operating his business in accordance with his beliefs about marriage will continue next year, according to a split ruling issued on Wednesday by a federal judge who found that the matter should head to trial due to outstanding issues that need further deliberation.

“[T]he City has not established that the ordinance was ‘clear in their application to plaintiffs’ proposed conduct,'” wrote Judge Paul Maloney, nominated to the bench by then-President George W. Bush. “Section 6(m), the addition to the vendor guidelines, does not clearly inform potential vendors that their conduct outside of the City’s jurisdiction can be used as a reason to deny the application.”

“While the City amended the ordinance defining the word ‘harass’ to remove the words ‘demean’ and ‘dehumanize,’ the words ‘intimidating’ and ‘offensive’ remain in the ordinance,” he noted. “The ordinance provides no mechanism for objectively evaluating when a message is ‘intimidating’ or ‘offensive.’ The definition of ‘harass’ provides too broad a delegation of authority to restrict communication based on the subjective effect on people who hear the message.”

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. 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.

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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 2016, 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 was rather discriminating against him.

In September 2017, Judge Maloney granted an injunction in favor of Tennes, opining that 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.”

He ordered the City of East Lansing to allow Country Mill Farms to participate in the farmer’s market, adding that officials “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.”

Tennes has subsequently participated in the market ever since, but his legal challenge has moved forward. On Wednesday, Maloney issued a split ruling, granting summary judgment in part for Tennes and in part for the City. It means that the case will move forward to trial next year to further hash out the specifics of the matter.

“Plaintiffs used Facebook to announce both their religious beliefs and their business practices. The City reacted to the Facebook post, culminating in the denial of Country Mill’s application to participate in the East Lansing Farm’s Market. The parties disagree whether City’s actions were because of Plaintiffs’ statement about their religious beliefs or whether the City’s actions were because of Plaintiffs’ statement about their business practices,” Maloney outlined.

“Because the record contains evidence from which the finder of fact could conclude that the City reacted to Plaintiffs’ statements about their religious beliefs, the cross motions for summary judgment must be denied for many of the claims. The trier of fact must decide what the City’s motivation was.”

Read the ruling in full here. 

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which is representing Tennes in court, expressed satisfaction with the ruling — namely that Maloney found certain aspects of the ordinance used against the farmer to be vague.

“All Americans should be free to live and speak according to their deeply held religious beliefs without fear of government punishment,” senior counsel Kate Anderson said in a statement. “As the record reflects, the city of East Lansing has consistently used this vagueness to act with hostility towards Steve and Bridget Tennes of Country Mill Farms because city officials simply don’t like their Catholic convictions about marriage.”

“In a public debate, a city council member even called Steve’s Catholic beliefs ‘bigot[ed],’ ‘ridiculous, horrible, [and] hateful,’” she outlined. “We are looking forward to stopping this discrimination against Country Mill Farms at trial.”

East Lansing City Manager George Lahanas likewise told the Lansing State Journal that the City is “prepared to go to trial.”

The trial is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 2020.

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