By Tom Intorcio
Even as Steve and Bridget Tennes of Country Mill Farms have been preparing for one of their biggest fall events – the Michigan Apple Festival on Sept. 23 and 24 – they’ve had a lawsuit hanging over their heads.
They have been hoping and praying that a federal court would restore their First Amendment freedoms and allow them to return to the East Lansing Farmer’s Market after being kicked out because they communicated about their religious beliefs on Facebook.
And today, just two days after a hearing on their request, a federal judge issued an order that will allow Country Mill to return to the farmer’s market while their civil liberties lawsuit against East Lansing proceeds.
This is great news for the Tenneses and Country Mill. The East Lansing Farmer’s Market has connected them with a great market community over the six years they’ve attended, and it is a staple of their retail business. That is why they were so taken aback by the way East Lansing treated them the last year.
In August 2016, after seeing Steve’s Facebook post referencing his belief that marriage is a union between one man and one woman, East Lansing officials decided that he and his organic apples were no longer welcome at the market. In fact, East Lansing went to great lengths to oust him, including adopting an unconstitutional, unlawful, and complex policy that city officials crafted specifically to shut out the Tennes family. The city did this even though the family and Country Mill Farms are 22 miles from East Lansing, well outside the city’s boundaries and beyond its jurisdiction.
Steve has never declined to serve anyone at the market, nor did he violate any law.
He was targeted because of his biblical view of marriage, a view shared by millions of people for thousands of years. That’s why ADF attorneys are seeking to restore Steve’s constitutionally protected rights to free speech, freedom of religion, and equal protection. This Court ruling is an encouraging step in that direction.
Steve and his wife Bridget are homegrown heroes. Steve grew up at Country Mill in Charlotte, about 20 miles from Lansing, Michigan’s capital. And Bridget hails from Nebraska. Steve is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, and Bridget is an Army veteran. They met in ROTC when she was studying to become a nurse. After their military tours, Steve and Bridget decided to move back to Steve’s childhood home to take over operation of his family’s farm, Country Mill, where they are now raising their own five children.
Their spirit of service did not end when they completed their military service. Like all practicing Christians, loving their neighbors is how they love the Lord. That is reflected in the way the Tenneses operate their farm.
The Tenneses “seek to glorify God by facilitating family fun on the farm and by feeding families.”
The Michigan Apple Festival next weekend benefits the Greater Lansing Area Food bank. Later in the season, the Tenneses also host their own event, Pick a Peck for People, where they invite groups, families, and individuals to come to Country Mill, pick as many apples as possible, which the Tenneses then donate to local food banks, providing fresh fruit to families through the winter. The Tenneses also employ and provide quality, exceptional housing for the seasonal workers who are considered part of their farm family.
They actively support the Farmer Veteran Coalition, which helps veterans enter the farming profession after military service. About 20 percent of today’s American military come from rural America. Maybe that’s why the federal government spends millions to help veterans and other “underserved people” enter the farming and ranching fields so that they can return to their rural communities and find rewarding employment.
Despite their service to their country and their community, East Lansing officials discriminated against Steve and Bridget simply because of a Facebook post. No one should ever be treated this way by public officials, especially after those officials have publicly touted their “unwavering commitment to the just treatment and protection of the rights of all…”— disavowing religious discrimination by resolution, as they pledged in January.
Note to East Lansing: See the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. If you’re still not convinced, see the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties—observing that religious freedom protections prevent the government from excluding people of faith from “full participation in the economic life of the Nation.”
If city officials can take away a veteran’s license to do business in the market purely because he dared to express his religious beliefs on Facebook, then no American is free.
Please pray for the Tennes family and their ADF and ADF-allied attorneys, and for swift and enduring justice to vindicate their freedoms as this case continues. And, whenever you encounter veterans, thank and support them. You can find their products at your local market by looking for the Homegrown by Heroes label.
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