For seven years, Country Mill Farms set up a booth at the East Lansing Farmer’s Market to sell their produce, offering the only stand with organic apples.
But this year, Country Mill was not invited back. And it’s not because organic produce is going out of style.
The reason? They chose to communicate their religious viewpoint on marriage on their Facebook page – a belief that is apparently unwelcome in East Lansing. Today, Alliance Defending Freedom filed suit on Country Mill’s behalf.
Country Mill Farms, owned by Steve Tennes, is a second-generation family business that grows apples, blueberries, peaches, cherries, sweet corn, and pumpkins. They host a number of community events, including some Michigan fall favorites – a corn maze, a petting zoo, apple picking, and hay rides.
As Catholics, the Tennes family believes that marriage is a sacred union between one man and one woman. Last August, the family communicated these beliefs on their Country Mill Farms Facebook page. But when East Lansing officials saw the statement, the city began taking steps to expel Country Mill Farms from the East Lansing Farmer’s Market.
So, a city official called Country Mill Farms and pressured the farm to not return to the Farmer’s Market. The city official told the Tennes family that the City no longer wanted them at the Farmer’s Market, since the City thought hecklers might protest the Tennes’ religious views at the Market if Country Mill Farms continued to attend.
Country Mill Farms decided to participate in the Market anyway, just as it had year after year. No protestors greeted them. No disruptions happened.
That did not change East Lansing’s position. Absent legal authority to regulate the Tennes’ speech and beliefs, East Lansing adopted a new policy for 2017 Market Vendors specifically designed to give the City a basis to exclude Country Mill Farms. Under the new policy, all vendors must comply with East Lansing’s nondiscrimination laws not just while they are at the Farmer’s Market but in all of their general business practices. That includes all vendors’ speech and activities on their own farms outside of East Lansing.
East Lansing’s nondiscrimination laws include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes. And the City interprets the laws to ban statements, like Country Mill Farms’, that marriage is a sacred union between one man and one woman.
When East Lansing sent out invitations in January inviting select local vendors to participate in the 2017 Farmer’s Market, Country Mill Farms did not receive one – for the first time since 2011.
Country Mill Farms submitted an application anyway. They noticed the new policy. But because Country Mill Farms does not discriminate against anyone and they sell their produce to all customers, they moved forward with the application process. But when East Lansing saw the application, the City informed Country Mill Farms that the farm could not participate in the 2017 market for violating the policy. The City sent Country Mill Farms a copy of the Tennes’ Facebook statement expressing their religious beliefs about marriage as evidence of the violation. The policy banned Country Mill Farms but nobody else.
East Lansing’s actions pose at least two major problems:
- First and foremost, Country Mill Farms has a right to speak about their religious beliefs and still attend the market – a right East Lansing denied them when it expelled them from the market conditioning their return on the surrender of their religious speech. If the City can stop a farmer from participating in a farmer’s market because it doesn’t like his entirely unrelated view of marriage, then the City can deny any person any benefit based on that person’s speech, religious beliefs, or social and political views.
- Beyond that, Country Mill Farms is in Charlotte, Michigan, which is 22 miles outside of East Lansing. The City’s regulation of speech outside its jurisdiction amounts to major government overreach.
This unconstitutional policy and severe overreach of local government should concern us all.
The government should never force individuals to surrender their religious beliefs or their expression of those beliefs.
Policies like East Lansing’s are unconstitutional and limit the right of people to freely live out their faith and even explain their religious views. At Alliance Defending Freedom, we are challenging these types of laws in Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, and Wisconsin because the doors for the Gospel of Jesus Christ must remain open.
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