Court Rules for Michigan Farmer’s Religious Freedom

Court Rules for Michigan Farmer’s Religious Freedom

On Monday, a federal district court ruled that a city in Michigan cannot prevent Stephen Tennes, an apple farmer who does not host same-sex weddings at his orchard, from participating in the East Lansing Farmers Market (ELFM) because of his Christian beliefs on marriage.

Tennes, owner of Country Mill Farms, 22 miles away from East Lansing, had participated in ELFM for five consecutive years leading up to the lawsuit, says he kindly served all customers and never received any major complaints. In response to a question on Facebook in 2016, Tennes stated that he and his wife would not host same-sex weddings on the orchard property because of their Christian principles.

As a result, East Lansing city officials did not send Tennes an invitation to participate in ELFM’s 2017 season and denied his subsequent vendor application. The city officials amended the vendor guidelines specifically to exclude Tennes for his religious convictions regarding marriage, making it a requirement for all vendors to comply with the city’s civil rights ordinances and public policy against discrimination, even outside of the farmers market. The vendor guidelines also gave ELFM’s planning committee the ability to decide who to invite to the farmers market with “functionally unfettered discretion,” making the guidelines not generally applicable.

Tennes, with the help of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), sued the city for violating his religious rights under the First Amendment. U.S. District Judge Paul L. Maloney ordered the city to allow Tennes’ participation in the farmers market during the lawsuit’s progression.

After a six-year legal battle, the court under Judge Maloney ruled that East Lansing’s “decision to deny (Tennes’) application substantially burdened (his) free exercise of religion.” The ruling declared that Tennes was forced by the city to choose between his “religious beliefs and a government benefit for which Country Mill Farms was eligible.” Tennes is now free to participate in the farmers market with his religious freedom protected.

“We’re glad that we were able to go forward with this,” Tennes told Fox News Digital, “and the court has come out with a strong ruling that helps not just our family, but really people of all backgrounds and beliefs to realize that the government can’t choose to punish some people just because they don’t like their beliefs.” He shared that the original decision to sue was difficult, but was one the family had to make as they were “faced with the choice of providing for our family like we always had, or walking away from our religious beliefs.”

ADF Senior Counsel Kate Anderson argued in court for Country Mill Farms in 2021. “This is a ruling about each one of us being able to live according to our religious beliefs. And that’s the freedom that everyone should want,” Anderson said to Fox News Digital. “[Tennes and his family] are eager to mend fences with current city officials and get back to doing what Country Mill does best—as expressed in its mission statement: ‘glorifying God by facilitating family fun on the farm and feeding families.’”

Photo: Courtesy of Alliance Defending Freedom

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