For years, Steve and Bridget Tennes have served their local community through their family farm, Country Mill Farms. They grow apples, peaches, blueberries, sweet corn, and pumpkins, and they host community events throughout the year.
Since 2010, they have also sold their produce at a farmer’s market in East Lansing. Their customer service was so impeccable that the city invited Country Mill Farms back year after year.
But then something changed, and Steve Tennes and his family suddenly found themselves in the middle of a legal battle with the city.
Who are Steve and Bridget Tennes of Country Mill Farms?
Steve Tennes grew up at Country Mill Farms in Charlotte, Michigan—he was born the day after one of the apple orchards was planted. Steve and Bridget met in ROTC when Bridget was studying to become a nurse. After both serving in the military—Steve in the U.S. Marine Corps and Bridget in the U.S. Army—they decided to move back to Michigan to take over the operation of his family’s farm, where they are now raising their own children.
“Our family farm here is very personal to us,” Steve said. “One of the things we really enjoy about our family farm here is [that] we are able to raise our … children here at the farm in accordance with our faith.”
And they do just that. Their Catholic faith shines through in everything they do at the farm, where their mission is “to glorify God by facilitating family fun on the farm and feeding families.”
One way the Tenneses fulfill their mission is through their annual Pick a Peck for People event, where they invite groups, families, and individuals to come to the farm to pick as many apples as possible. The Tennes family then donates those apples to local food banks, providing fresh fruit to families through the winter.
They also employ and provide quality, exceptional housing for the seasonal workers who are considered part of their farm family. And they actively support the Farmer Veteran Coalition, which helps veterans enter the farming profession after military service.
In August 2016, someone posted on Country Mill Farms’ Facebook page, asking about their beliefs on marriage. Steve and Bridget are Catholic, so they answered honestly, expressing their belief that marriage is between one man and one woman.
Officials in the City of East Lansing disagreed with the Tenneses’ beliefs, and less than two days after the Facebook post, they began pushing them to leave the market.
First, these officials asked the Tennes family to agree not to vend at the upcoming market. When Steve decided to continue serving all his customers at the market, the city created a new policy designed specifically to bar him from future markets.
The city then barred the vendor selection committee from inviting Steve to the 2017 market—which the committee had done every year since 2010. And when Steve applied on his own, the city pulled his application from committee review and rejected it.
The city had banned Steve and Bridget from the farmer’s market not because of something they did, but because of their beliefs about marriage.
ADF filed a lawsuit in May 2017, and that fall a federal district issued an order allowing Country Mill Farms to return to the market while the lawsuit proceeded.
In August 2023, the district court issued a final ruling allowing Country Mill Farms to continue participating in the East Lansing farmer’s market. The court said East Lansing officials tried to force the Tennes family to choose between their beliefs and “a government benefit for which they were otherwise qualified,” which is a clear First Amendment violation.
“The reason is simple: denying a person an equal share of the rights, benefits, and privileges enjoyed by other citizens because of [his] faith discourages religious activity,” the court wrote in its ruling.
- August 2016: The city of East Lansing attempted to force the Tennes family out of the farmer’s market.
- Winter 2017: The city created a policy designed specifically to bar the family from future markets. They rejected the Tenneses’ application based on this new policy and their Facebook post in March 2017.
- May 2017: ADF attorneys filed a complaint against the city on behalf of Country Mill Farms and quickly sought a preliminary injunction, which would require the city to allow the Tennes family back in the farmer’s market as the case proceeded. A federal district court granted that request and allowed Country Mill Farms back at the market.
- August 2023: The district court ruled that East Lansing officials violated the First Amendment by barring Country Mills Farms from the market, and so the Tennes family should be allowed to continue participating in the market.
The bottom line
People of faith should be free to live and work according to their beliefs without fear of being banned from the marketplace.