Christian Orchard Owner Sues Mich. City for Forcing Him Out of Farmer’s Market

(Kaylee McGhee, Liberty Headlines) EAST LANSING—A Michigan farmer filed a lawsuit against the city of East Lansing yesterday, after being banned from the city’s farmer’s market because of his religious convictions.

IMAGE: YouTube

For the first time since 2010 Steve Tennes and his family-run fruit orchard, Country Mill Farms, will not be present when the East Lansing Farmers Market resumes on Sunday. Tennes said he has been excluded from the market because he expressed his religious beliefs regarding marriage on his business’s Facebook page.

“Our faith and beliefs on marriage and hosting weddings at our home and in our backyard of our farm have nothing to do with the City of East Lansing,” Tennes said at a press conference Wednesday. “Nor does it have anything to do with the produce that we sell to the people that attend the farmer’s markets, who are from all backgrounds and all beliefs.”

Tennes said his farm had received a written invitation from the city to return to the farmer’s market, and that Country Mills enjoyed great support from East Lansing officials – who praised their participation – until as late as August.

When Tennes received an inquiry in August on Country Mill’s Facebook page regarding his religious beliefs, he said his conviction that marriage was for one man and one woman, and that he would not book same-sex weddings.

Immediately afterward city officials tried to force Tennes out of the farmer’s market. They began pressuring him in late August, saying Country Mill was not wanted at the next scheduled market, and that they had received multiple complaints regarding Tennes’ post. They urged Tennes’s to withdraw Country Mill Farms entirely from the market.

“The government should never force its citizens to choose between following their deepest convictions and making a living,” said legal counsel Kate Anderson of Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing Tennes, at the press conference.

Tennes refused to withdraw, however, and continued to serve the market’s customers. Tennes expressed his religious beliefs online again in December, and the city of East Lansing tried to expel Country Mill from the market. But because Country Mill is 20 miles outside of the city, well beyond East Lansing’s jurisdiction, city officials crafted a new policy that allowed them to bypass its jurisdictional limits.

This new policy required vendors to agree to and comply with the city’s “Human Relations Ordinance and its public policy against discrimination…while at the market and as a general business practice.” The Human Relations Ordinance makes it illegal for a business to make a statement that could be considered discriminatory.

Based on this new policy, Country Mill’s application to the 2017 farmer’s market was rejected, and Tennes was told he was not in compliance with the Human Relations Ordinance. Anderson said Tennes was the only vendor barred from the market, and his Facebook post was cited as the sole violation of this ordinance.

“All Steve wants to do is sell his food to anyone who wants to buy it, but the city isn’t letting him,” Anderson said. “People of faith, like the Tennes family, should be free to live and work according to their deeply held beliefs without fear of losing their livelihood. If the government can shut down a family farmer just because of the religious views he expresses on Facebook—by denying him a license to do business and serve fresh produce to all people—then no American is free.”

ADF, a legal nonprofit, filed suit against the city on behalf of Tennes on Wednesday. The organization says the city and its policy violate the Constitution’s guarantee of free speech, freedom of religion, and equal protection. The suit asks the court to halt East Lansing’s discriminatory policy so that Tennes and Country Mill can once again serve customers at the farmer’s market.

“To exclude the tenants is a gross overreach of power,” said state Rep. Brett Robers, a Republican, at the press conference. “We cannot afford to set such a dangerous precedent.”