When Steve and Bridget Tennes answered a question posed on their company’s Facebook page about their views on marriage, they never dreamed it would get them banished from business dealings in nearby East Lansing, Mich. But that’s exactly what happened.
Now, more than a year later, a federal court has ruled that the Tennes’ business, Country Mill Farms, must be allowed to sell their produce at the East Lansing Farmers Market through the end of 2017 while the case proceeds in federal district court.
Country Mill Farms, located 22 miles from East Lansing in Charlotte, Mich., has sold its organic apples at the East Lansing Farmers Market each summer and fall for five consecutive years and had been invited back each year by the city. The 122-acre farm produces apples, pumpkins, blueberries, cherries and peaches while also hosting events, including weddings.
In the fall of 2016, after Tennes posted his view, via Facebook, that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, the city of East Lansing promptly informed Tennes that he would no longer be welcome to sell at the market.
Before the 2017 market season approached, East Lansing officials also declined to send Country Mill a vendor application, a change from what had been customary, and adopted a policy that required all vendors to abide by the city’s nondiscrimination law, not just at the farmers market but in their daily business practices, even outside the city.
Attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which is representing Country Mill Farms in a civil rights lawsuit against the city of East Lansing, say Tennes has never discriminated against anyone, and that East Lansing violated Tennes’ constitutional rights to free speech by attempting to exclude him from the city-run market because of his religious views. A significant portion of Country Mill’s annual sales come from the market.
The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, Southern Division, wrote in its ruling: “On the evidence before this court, the city amended its vendor guidelines and then used the changes to deny Country Mill’s vendor application. 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.”
According to ADF, after Tennes’ August 2016 Facebook post was seen by East Lansing officials, they told him they didn’t want Country Mill at their next market event, fearing his presence would prompt protests. Tennes opted to attend anyway, with no issues. Country Mill even temporarily stopped booking wedding events. However, city officials continued to grow bolder in opposing Tennes.
“We tried our best on this, but the city just wanted us gone because of our beliefs,” Steve Tennes told Decision. “And once they found out that we were Christians, the city wanted no part of us. They made that very clear—through the emails, through the phone calls.”
Once it was clear the city’s beef with Country Mill Farms wasn’t about the hosting of marriage ceremonies but rather about their stated beliefs, Steve and Bridget again posted to Facebook—this time clearly stating they could not host any event on their farm that conflicted with their values or religious beliefs.
Despite not being invited to apply as a vendor last spring, Tennes applied anyway. In response, East Lansing officials pulled Tennes’ application from the normal committee review process, reviewing it themselves instead, according to ADF.
Tennes was then informed by letter that he was not in compliance with the city’s new vendor nondiscrimination policy and would be excluded from selling at the market. ADF attorneys say the letter included an attachment of Tennes’ 2016 Facebook post expressing his marriage views.
East Lansing officials’ hostility toward Tennes is despite Country Mill Farms’ years of service to the community and surrounding towns. It has hosted a large annual charity event for local food banks, including the Greater Lansing Food Bank. The business also employs some 75 people at the height of its harvest season, and has been recognized for its generosity to the seasonal workers it employs.
“We consider it an extended family, which reflects our belief that our Christian faith informs everything we do,” Steve Tennes says.
Kate Anderson, an ADF attorney who is representing Country Mill Farms, says East Lansing has enacted a policy that attempts to dictate its vendors’ business affairs outside the context of the farmers market—and in Country Mill’s case, far outside East Lansing at their farm in Charlotte, Mich.
“The Tenneses have never violated any law,” Anderson says. “They have always served every customer, and that is a fact in this case.”
With a temporary victory in hand, Country Mill is awaiting a decision from the federal district court, likely months from now, Anderson says.
“That the city of East Lansing sought to reach far outside its jurisdiction and say that all vendors must comply with its nondiscrimination ordinance not only at the market but in all their general business practices is alarming, and not just for Country Mill Farms,” Anderson says. “That should be very concerning to everyone.” ©2017 BGEA