Family farm banned from city farmers market over refusal to host gay weddings awaits ruling in legal battle

Following a bench trial this week a federal court in Michigan is set to rule in the case of a farm that was banned from a city-run market in East Lansing over its owners’ refusal to allow same-sex couples to hold weddings on their property. 

The years-long legal battle that started in 2016 is yet another example of the difficulty federal courts are having balancing the First Amendment rights of religious people and the rights of gay people not to be discriminated against. And it implicates two major Supreme Court rulings from the past four years. 

Country Mill Farms is run by Stephen Tennes and his wife Bridget, and they sold their produce at a market run by the city of East Lansing, Michigan for years. The family also hosted weddings on their property but in 2016 temporarily stopped doing so amid controversy over a Facebook post in which the family said it objects to same-sex weddings because of their Catholic faith. 

The family eventually announced in December, 2016 Facebook post that it would resume holding weddings but exclude gay couples. This prompted East Lansing to ban Country Mill from its market under a newly-created policy saying all vendors must adhere to the city’s non-discrimination policy in their general operations. 

Steve and Bridget Tennes at Country Mill Farms. The Tennes family is in a long-running legal battle with East Lansing, Michigan. 

Steve and Bridget Tennes at Country Mill Farms. The Tennes family is in a long-running legal battle with East Lansing, Michigan. 

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“If a city can target and punish a farmer for his religious beliefs on marriage, and do the things that they did and get away with that kind of authority over somebody’s religious beliefs… they really have the power to try to impact everybody’s religious beliefs,” Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) Senior Counsel Kate Anderson told Fox News. ADF is representing Country Mill in this case. 

“That’s something that violates our Constitution and should never happen,” Anderson added, calling the city’s conduct “egregious.”

“The Country Mill engages in expressing its purpose and beliefs through the operation of its business and it intentionally communicates messages that promote its owners’ beliefs and declines to communicate messages that violate those beliefs,” the farm said in the December 2016 Facebook Post. “For this reason, Country Mill reserves the right to deny a request for services that would require it to communicate, engage in, or host expression that violates the owners’ sincerely held religious beliefs and conscience.”

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The Tennes family, according to court documents submitted by their lawyers, “are ‘intimately involved'” in the weddings held on their farm – they participate, oversee the details of the ceremony and pray for the couples. The family’s lawyers argue that the way Tennes runs his business is in fact an extension of his religious life. 

“Tennes exercises his Catholic religious beliefs about marriage by hosting and participating in weddings on his farm that bear witness to the truth about the sacred union of marriage,” the farm’s trial brief says. “This religious conduct that flows from his religious belief is constitutionally protected.”

The city disputes this, saying Country Mills’ decision not to host same-sex weddings is “commercial conduct” which does not have protection under the First Amendment. It is, the city says, “a general business practice that was in violation of the city’s anti-discrimination policy.”

The Tennes family at their farm, Country Mill Farms, outside of Charlotte, Michigan. (ADF)

The Tennes family at their farm, Country Mill Farms, outside of Charlotte, Michigan. (ADF)

Also at issue in this case are two major Supreme Court precedents, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia and Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. 

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“Just like Catholic Social Services in the Supreme Court’s recent Fulton v. City of Philadelphia decision, Steve Tennes seeks to operate his family farm, Country Mill, consistent with the tenets of his Catholic faith but ‘does not seek to impose those beliefs on anyone else,'” the trial brief for Country Mill says. “Yet City officials in East Lansing dislike Tennes’s religious beliefs, speech, and practice. So, the City created a policy to ban Tennes—and only him—from its Farmer’s Market.”

East Lansing, however, argues that Fulton has one major difference from the case at hand – the Catholic foster agency in that case was a nonprofit with a religious mission. Country Mil Farms, the city says, “is a privately held business enterprise that operates for profit and, as this Court has stated ‘is not a religious institution.'”

The city also points out that Masterpiece Cakeshop – in which a Colorado baker won after being sued for not making a cake for a gay wedding – was decided on narrow grounds due to the outright hostility the civil rights commission in Colorado expressed toward Christianity. There was no such hostility in this case, it said. 

But the farm’s lawyers point to a statement made by East Lansing Mayor Ruth Beier, who was previously a member of the city council, as relevant. 

A photo of Country Mill Farms, which is in a long-running legal battle with the city of East Lansing. (ADF)

A photo of Country Mill Farms, which is in a long-running legal battle with the city of East Lansing. (ADF)

‘We don’t doubt that you’re allowed to be a bigot… You can say it on Facebook, you can say ridiculous, horrible, hateful things,” Beier said, according to court documents. “What we said is if you actually do discriminate in your business by not allowing same-sex couples to marry on your farm, then we don’t want you in East Lansing.”

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The city also argues that the case is a slippery slope – that a ruling in favor of Country Mill could “insulate any religiously motivated business practice from anti-discrimination policies.” But Country Mill says the city’s policy creates a different slippery slope. 

“With this unfettered power, City officials can effectively regulate any vendor’s speech and religious beliefs by conditioning participation in the Market on speech and practice the City deems acceptable,” its brief says. 

The ruling by Judge Paul Maloney – a George W. Bush appointee – will be important to the parties involved. 

But there’s a strong chance that Maloney’s ruling won’t be the last word in the case, which may work its way to the appeals courts or higher and affect the law in much or all of the country. ADF has taken several high profile cases to the Supreme Court, including multiple major rulings issued in the last couple of years on school choice, freedom of association and more. 

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