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Published On: Fri, Sep 15th, 2017

Michigan court protects Steve Tennes freedom of conscience in Country Mill Farms gay marriage case

A federal court issued an order Friday that requires the city of East Lansing to allow a farmer to return to its 2017 farmer’s market after city officials developed a rule for the purpose of keeping him out because of his marriage views. The city ousted Steve Tennes and Country Mill Farms after reading a post on his Facebook page that expressed his religious belief in marriage as the union between one man and one woman.

Photo/Nodar Kherkheulidze via wikimedia commons

“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,” said Alliance Defending Freedom Legal Counsel Kate Anderson, who argued in favor of the order on behalf of Tennes on Wednesday. “As the court found, East Lansing officials changed their market policy to shut out Steve because they don’t like his Catholic 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.”

“The City of East Lansing must allow Plaintiffs to participate in the East Lansing Farmer’s Market for the remainder of the 2017 season,” the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, Southern Division, wrote in its order in Country Mill Farms v. City of East Lansing. “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.”

At issue is an unconstitutional, unlawful, and complex policy that city officials adopted specifically to shut out Tennes and Country Mills Farms, his family’s fruit orchard, purely because he posted on Facebook his belief in biblical marriage. The city did this even though Tennes, his family, and the orchard are in Charlotte, 22 miles from East Lansing, well outside the city’s boundaries and beyond its jurisdiction.

After seeing Tennes’ Facebook post from August 2016, city officials took several actions to drive him out of the market. First, they told him they did not want Country Mill Farms at the next scheduled market, and they warned him that protests could occur if his farm continued to participate. Tennes, a military veteran, decided to continue to serve his customers at the market. No one protested. That did not change city officials’ resolve that Tennes could no longer participate in the market due to his statement of his religious beliefs.

For the first time in six years, when applications opened for the 2017 farmer’s market, the city did not invite Tennes to participate in the market. City officials also changed the application process for Country Mill Farms only, removing Tennes’ vendor application from the normal committee review process and reviewing it directly instead. Since Tennes and Country Mill Farms did not violate any law while at the market or in Charlotte, the officials crafted a new vendor policy that extended the city’s Human Relations Ordinance, bypassing jurisdictional limits under Michigan law, to expel Tennes from the market.

Based on the new policy, an official then informed Steve by letter that he was not in compliance and that Country Mill Farms was prohibited from participating in the 2017 market, scheduled for June through October. The notice included an attachment of Steve’s December 2016 Facebook post speaking about his religious beliefs as evidence, despite the fact that the post is constitutionally protected free speech and Country Mill Farms has never turned away a customer based on sexual orientation.

Former Michigan Solicitor General John Bursch, one of nearly 3,200 attorneys allied with ADF, is serving as local counsel in the case for Tennes and Country Mill Farms. ADF-allied attorneys James Wierenga and Jeshua Lauka with the Grand Rapids law firm of David & Wierenga PC are also serving as local counsel.

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