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Alliance Alert

Apr 19, 2019

City Tells Farming Family 22 Miles Away They Aren't Invited Back Over Marriage Beliefs

One bad apple can spoil the bunch. In East Lansing, Michigan, one bad law can spoil freedom for everyone.

For the past seven years, Steve and Bridget Tennes, owners of Country Mill Farms in Charlotte, MI, had driven 22 miles to sell their organic apples, peaches, and blueberries at the East Lansing farmer’s market. Country Mill Farms and East Lansing had an amicable relationship until East Lansing city officials discovered something that caused them to take actions to bar the Tenneses from ever attending the farmer’s market again. What soiled their relationship?

Let’s take a look.

When it comes to selling their goods, the Tennes family will serve anyone and everyone. They gave customers the best they had to offer since they began attending the farmer’s market in August 2010, and never a complaint was had about their services. East Lansing invited the family back every year to the farmer’s market as a preferred vendor. The city even commented on the Country Mill Farms Facebook page: “We love The Country Mill!”

Ironically, it was Facebook that landed the Tennes family in trouble with East Lansing. In August 2016, Steve responded to a question on the Facebook page and said that because of the family’s devout Catholic beliefs, they follow their church’s teaching that marriage is between one man and one woman when hosting and participating in weddings at their family farm.

East Lansing city officials saw that answer. One week after declaring “We love the Country Mill,” the city took action to ban Country Mill Farms from attending the farmer’s market. The city designed policies specifically to prevent the Tennes family from participating in the market. Suddenly, the city could not stomach the thought of hosting the local farmers who had been preferred vendors with no complaints for years.

When the Tennes family tried to sign up for the farmer’s market that year, they were rejected.

The city’s actions are baffling. The Tenneses serve everyone that come to buy their fresh, organic produce. Their religious beliefs motivate them to donate thousands of pounds of apples to local food banks and to fight government bureaucrats for the right to build housing for migrant workers. They daily share and live out their faith before their customers and visitors at the farm.

At a public hearing over the issue, city council member Ruth Beier commented, “We don’t doubt you’re allowed to be a bigot. You’re allowed to say whatever you want. You can say it on Facebook. You can say ridiculous, horrible, hateful things.”

And East Lansing mayor weighed in, criticizing Steve Tennes for his “public statement” about his religious views on marriage influencing his business practices. Other city officials said that his marriage beliefs were “the same” as southern racists in the Jim Crow era. The city’s public position was that it would expel Country Mill Farms until it successfully changed the Catholic beliefs of Tennes and his family.

The city accuses the Tennes family of discriminating. The record shows pretty clearly, however, that it is the city doing the discriminating.

A federal court appeared to agree with this by granting Country Mill Farms a preliminary order in 2017 that allowed the Tennes family to temporarily return to the market, and the family recently appeared in federal court again to receive a permanent order allowing them to return to the farmer’s market and stop the city of East Lansing from discriminating against their beliefs.

The Tennes family case is backed up by the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. In that case, the Court ruled the CCRC had exhibited animosity toward the religious views of Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips. In addition, the Obergefell decision makes clear that the government must respect the belief that marriage is between one man and one woman.

ADF Senior Counsel John Bursch argues that the connection between Masterpiece and Country Mill is clear:  “All you have to do is take the template that the Supreme Court gave us in Masterpiece and apply it to the statements here, and the result is the same.”

East Lansing, the state of Colorado, the state of Washington, the city of Phoenix, and many more governments need to be sure of one simple rule: Discriminating against religious views does not belong in the government. Tolerance is a two-way street; declaring love for a vendor one week and then barring them the next over disagreements on marriage beliefs is anything but tolerant.

As ADF Senior Counsel Kate Anderson, who argued the Tennes’s case, puts it, “All Americans should be free to live and speak according to their deeply held religious beliefs without fear of government punishment.”

Targeting one family over their beliefs and getting away with it opens the door for other governments to target others with whom they disagree. That’s why the Tennes family is fighting this unconstitutional practice, because if their freedom is spoiled, everyone’s freedom is spoiled.

  • religious freedom
  • Country Mill Farms
  • Friday Feature
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