This Farmer Won’t Host Same-Sex Weddings at His Orchard. Now a City Has Banned Him From Its Farmers Market.

By Fred Lucas Published on May 31, 2017

A farmers market and Facebook posts have opened a new front in courtroom battles over religious freedom.

It started when Steve Tennes, who owns a 120-acre farm in Charlotte, Michigan, expressed his traditional view about marriage on the farm’s Facebook page.

This drew a warning from an official more than 20 miles away in East Lansing, Michigan, that if Tennes tried to sell his fruit at the city’s farmers market, it could incite protests.

No one showed up to protest that August day last summer, though, and Tennes continued selling organic apples, peaches, cherries, and pumpkins at the seasonal market until October, as he had done the six previous years.

 Nevertheless, East Lansing moved earlier this year to ban Tennes’ farm, the Country Mill, from participating in the farmers market when it resumes June 4. The city cited its human relations ordinance, an anti-discrimination law that includes sexual orientation.

So Tennes and his wife sued the city for religious discrimination.

As a Marine veteran who is married to an Army veteran, Tennes told The Daily Signal, this was consistent with his philosophy of defending freedom:

My wife Bridget and I volunteered to serve our country in the military to protect freedom, and that is why we feel we have to fight for freedom now, whether it’s Muslims’, Jews’, or Christians’ right to believe and live out those beliefs.

The government shouldn’t be treating some people worse than others because they have different thoughts and ideas.

Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal aid organization, is representing the Tenneses.

Neither East Lansing’s public information office nor the city manager’s office responded Wednesday to phone calls about the case from The Daily Signal.

East Lansing Mayor Mark Meadows told the Lansing State Journal that the city’s decision to exclude Country Mill—also known as Country Mill Orchard—from the farmers market had nothing to do with religious beliefs, but with the farm’s “business decision” not to host same-sex weddings.

“This is about them operating a business that discriminates against LGBT individuals, and that’s a whole different issue,” Meadows said.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, says of Steve and Bridget Tennes’ perspective, in part:

Plaintiffs support the rights of citizens and other businesses to express their views about marriage. Plaintiffs simply seek to enjoy the same freedom.

Yet, East Lansing’s policy strips plaintiffs of their constitutional freedoms, including free speech and the free exercise of religion, by punishing plaintiffs’ viewpoint on marriage, going so far as to prohibit Country Mill from continuing its long history of participating in the farmers market because plaintiffs publicly stated their sincerely held religious view that marriage is a union between one man and one woman. 

The suit also says the farm “has employed people from a wide variety of racial, cultural, and religious backgrounds, including members of the LGBT community.

Country Mill hosts a corn maze, birthday parties, weddings, and other events.

In 2014, two lesbians sought to be married in a wedding ceremony at Country Mill, but Tennes turned them down.

This occurred before the 2015 Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage across the country.

According to his legal complaint, Tennes had a “civil” discussion with the women, and said his venue didn’t host same-sex weddings because of his religious beliefs. But he referred the women to an orchard that held same-sex weddings.

In 2015, the two women were married at another orchard. On Aug. 22, 2016, one of them wrote a Facebook post discouraging consumers from doing business with Country Mill.

In response, Tennes initially said the farm would cease holding any weddings, writing on Facebook:

After prayerful consideration, we will no longer book any future wedding ceremonies at our orchard. This allows us to maintain our personal religious beliefs. We will continue to rent out our barn for special events. As stated before, people of all background and beliefs are always welcomed. Thank you for the respectful dialogue.

The Tennes Family

After this post, the East Lansing official asked Tennes not to sell produce at the market, saying he feared protests.

Tennes did anyway, and no protest occurred, according to the lawsuit.

In December, Tennes announced on Facebook that Country Mill would resume holding weddings:

This past fall our family farm stopped booking future wedding ceremonies at our orchard until we could devote the appropriate time to review our policies and how we respectfully communicate and express our beliefs. 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 Country Mill family and its staff have and will continue to participate in hosting the ceremonies held at our orchard. It remains our deeply held religious belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman and Country Mill has the First Amendment right to express and act upon its beliefs. 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.

Furthermore, it remains our religious belief that all people should be treated with respect and dignity regardless of their beliefs or background. We appreciate the tolerance offered to us specifically regarding our participation in hosting wedding ceremonies at our family farm.

East Lansing city officials determined that these public statements violated the city’s 1972 human relations ordinance prohibiting discrimination. That law was the first in the state to recognize sexual orientation as a protected class from discrimination.

But this brought up a jurisdictional issue on top of First Amendment concerns, the farmer’s lawsuit says.

East Lansing, the complaint says, “has no authority to enforce its ordinance based on Tennes’ religious beliefs and their impact on how he operates Country Mill.” The farm, it says, is 22 miles outside the city.

The lawsuit also notes that the city has not taken action against a vendor that promoted same-sex marriage.

In March, East Lansing sent Tennes a letter denying Country Mill’s application to be a vendor at the 2017 farmers market:

It was brought to our attention that the Country Mill’s general business practices do not comply with East Lansing’s civil rights ordinances and public policy against discrimination as set forth in Chapter 22 of the City Code and outlined in the 2017 market vendor guidelines.

“As such,” the letter reads, “Country Mill’s presence as a vendor is prohibited.”

 

Copyright 2016 The Daily Signal

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  • Kevin Quillen

    America…..land of the free? only if you are a leftie.

  • Timothy Horton

    Pretty hypocritical of Tennes to say this

    “The government shouldn’t be treating some people worse than others because they have different thoughts and ideas.”

    While he treats his LGBT fellow citizens worse that hetero others because they have different thoughts and ideas.

    Oh well. Another bigot trying to avoid anti-discrimination laws. Let the screaming and wailing from the holier-than-thou crowd begin.

    • brothergc

      yawn , and more from the lefts playbook , dude you gotta get new material your so predictable

    • Az1seeit

      Except the US constitution defends his rights, which is why “The government shouldn’t be treating some people worse than others because they have different thoughts and ideas.” He can be, legally, “hypocritical” – in your eyes – all day long. Once again, you really need to understand…these are YOUR freedoms, Mr. Horton, that are being eroded by your own defense of this illegal trend. Be very careful, sir.

      • Timothy Horton

        He can be free in his personal beliefs. He is not free to harm others with his personal actions. Discrimination against minorities in a public place of business hurts both the minority and society as a whole. That’s why we have anti-discrimination laws to begin with.

        • Gary

          Forcing people into business transactions they don’t want is harmful to society. Anti-discrimination laws were designed to try to force people together who don’t want to be together. That is harmful to society. And, such laws violate the Constitution.

        • Az1seeit

          Freedom of conscience in the free exercise of your religion is the point here….the same one that protects any faith – like, let’s take the currently favored one: Muslim faith – from having to involve themselves publicly or privately with anything that violates the free exercise of their faith. Please lift your head from your tunnel, and look at the big picture: the constitution protects everyone. This is discrimination against THEIR rights to live as their conscience dictates. You – and our current culture – are picking winners and losers when there doesn’t have to be losers.

          • Timothy Horton

            the constitution protects everyone.

            Yep. It protects minorities who are being unfairly discriminated against as in this case.

            This is discrimination against THEIR rights to live as their conscience dictates.

            No one is forcing them to personally be in a SSM. But if they rent their farm for hetero weddings yet deny the same service to SS couples they are breaking the law.

            Sooner or later it will dawn on the bigots – you can’t use your religion as an excuse to discriminate against minorities in your public place of business.

          • Gary

            You don’t have the right to force people to help you live as YOUR conscience dictates. The US Constitution is NOT on your side in this.

          • Az1seeit

            Sir, these people clearly are not bigots. They employ the people you claim they discriminate against. And again, with respect, it is not against the law. Their farm is out of that jurisdiction.

          • Timothy Horton

            Of course they’re bigots. They’re just selective as to when they decide to discriminate based on their bigotry.

          • Az1seeit

            LOL! Wow! You and Gary at least agree on that. Have a great day.

    • Charles Burge

      Even using your own standards, they have been treating everyone equally since 2015. Are you arguing that they should be punished in perpetuity for something that happened 2 years ago and no longer occurs? That strikes me as a pretty dangerous position to take.

      • Timothy Horton

        They publicly announced they would refuse service to same sex couples while allowing hetero couples. That isn’t treating everyone equally. A restaurant that puts up a sign WE DON’T SERVE BLACKS is still in violation of anti-discrimination laws even if no Black people file a complaint against them.

        • Charles Burge

          They did no such thing. They made a public statement in support of traditional marriage. But since they do not host weddings then no discrimination can occur.

          • Timothy Horton

            They publicly announced they will host hetero weddings while denying equal rights to SS couples. That’s the same as the sign WE DON’T SERVE BLACKS in the window.

          • Charles Burge

            You either have terrible reading comprehension, or you’re just lying. They publicly announced that they no longer do any weddings. Your analogy is completely false.

          • Timothy Horton

            Damn but you’re a moron.

            What does this line from the article say?

            “In December, Tennes announced on Facebook that Country Mill would resume holding weddings:”

            Idiot.

          • Charles Burge

            *egg on my face*

            Yes, I missed that part. I apologize for the confusion.

          • Timothy Horton

            OK, apology accepted and thanks.

  • Olaf

    Be happy. You are only banned from selling stuff. Sooner thatn we think, Christians might be banned from buying stuff. The Left will not be content with the ‘wailing and screaming’ until it comes out of thirsty throats and hungry mouths.

    • Gary

      So far, the anti-discrimination laws have been applied only to sellers of goods and services. The liberals have yet to find a way to make it apply to buyers. But I’m sure they would like to.

      • Olaf

        Yes, you are right, but the present situation is inconsistent. Selling stuff means you are going to make a contract (for the reason of profit). So is buying. You make a transaction from which you are profiting (getting goods in exchange of money). So, if selling is prohibited, so should be buying.

  • Burke Raymond

    The city is going to lose this one. What discrimination is taking place within their city limits and at their farmers market? Unless the guy has anti gay banners at his fruit stand and is refusing to sell fruit to same sex couples at the farmers market they have no case…they have no say in what takes place more than 20 miles outside their jurisdiction.

    • Az1seeit

      I agree. The problem is, jurisdiction, actual legality, and black and white reading of the law no longer matters in our judicial system. Of particular note are the court decisions against the President’s travel regulations. Both orders are solidly within legal bounds for a sitting President. The courts have no – get this – LEGAL leg to stand on in banning his EOs. Yet…they have. Twice. This is NOT about law. One can pray reality will prevail.

      • Michael Kilburg

        A little off subject here, but federal judges can be impeached and removed from office. Maybe Congress needs to grow a spine and start taking action!

        • Az1seeit

          Well, that’s good to know. But…does anyone in DC except Trump have a “spine?” One could argue the left does, but they’re all about hating and destroying the opposition, not using their “spine” to uphold the law and act on the best interests of the country. I am no Trumpist-I voted against Obama 2.0 – but the man cares about the good of the country and has the spine to carry out what if takes! Again, we need to pray that reality, integrity and courage will make a come back in our country.

    • Zeke Clinton

      Burke, shame on you! You said “fruit”.

    • chiMaxx

      Besides selling fruit at the market, he uses the market booth to market the farm as an ag tourism venue for weddings–a service he offers on a discriminatory basis that is in conflict with East Lansing’s anti-discrimination policy. It is one business, and the discriminatory policy persists as a “feature” of that business wherever he hangs his shingle (or vinyl banner).

  • Christian Cowboy

    The government is gaining more and more control of our private property.

  • Gary

    East Lansing has no legal basis to bar them from the farmer’s market. I hope the city loses in court.

    The Tennes admit they have employed homosexuals in the past. I don’t understand how someone can be opposed to ssm, but not opposed to homosexuals.

    • Az1seeit

      Do you really not understand or are you trying to imply inconsistency? Employing people is one thing. Tacitly encouraging demonstrable unreality – ssm is an oxymoron – and what is to their conscience sin, is quite another. If anything, this proves there is no discrimination here based on sexual orientation, which is supposedly what the relevant statute is about, but is based on their faith…which falls under the free exercise of religion clause.

      • Gary

        I’m implying inconsistency. Because I am opposed to homosexuality, I would never employ someone who behaved as a homosexual. And, I tend to doubt the sincerity of those who oppose ssm, but don’t oppose homosexuals in all circumstances.

        • Az1seeit

          With respect, you are projecting your standards – opposition to homosexuality – on this situation and judging them accordingly. It is obvious that you have a lower tolerance threshold for other people’s deception than they do. While I personally think this law is trumped by the constitution in this case, I’m thinking this anti-discrimination law would more aptly apply to you if you refused to employ someone based on their private sex practices – which you have no participation in. The difference here is they are asked to participate in something they find against their faith.

          • Timothy Horton

            The difference here is they are asked to participate in something they find against their faith.

            What’s to stop them from refusing to rent to interracial couples by claiming it is against their faith? Or refusing to rent to non-Caucasian couples because they claim their religious beliefs are that only hetero white couples should be married?

          • Christian Cowboy

            Why do gay couples insist on being someplace where there is no welcoming spirit? Why do they feel they must force themselves on others?

          • Timothy Horton

            Why did blacks in the 1960’s insist on going to stores and restaurants where there was no welcoming spirit? Why did they feel they must force themselves on others?

            The question asked is “how much bigotry and intolerance acceptable”? To myself and most people the answer is “none”.

          • Christian Cowboy

            As expected you didn’t answer my question.

          • Timothy Horton

            As expected you ignored my answer.

          • Timothy Horton

            How much bigotry and intolerance toward minorities in public venues do you find acceptable?

          • Christian Cowboy

            Gay people can marry if they wish – the court said they can but I don’t understand why they have the right to force me to participate.
            And for your information I don’t equate race and sexual preference as being equal.

          • Timothy Horton

            They can’t force you to participate and aren’t trying to force you to participate. All SS couples want is to be treated equally in the public venue, the same as everybody else gets treated. Not denied services merely because of who they are.

            And for your information I don’t equate race and sexual preference as being equal.

            Bigotry and discrimination against a harmless minority is still unacceptable no matter what the minority.

            How much bigotry and intolerance toward minorities in public venues do you find acceptable?

          • Christian Cowboy

            Since you probably consider being a Christian a minority, I will accept the same amount you will accept against me.

          • Timothy Horton

            I don’t accept any discrimination in public businesses merely because the customer is Christian. Why do you think it’s OK to discriminate against non-hetero customers in public businesses?

          • Christian Cowboy

            If you don’t accept discrimination in public businesses because of being a Christian – then why do you insist a Christian business person must participate in something that goes directly against their belief?

          • Timothy Horton

            There’s a big difference between being a service provider and a service user. If a Christian or anyone else runs an open to the public business they voluntarily agree to follow all anti-discrimination laws and serve all eligible members of the public equally. If their religious convictions are that strong they can’t follow the laws every other business is required to follow they find another non-public service business.

            Why do you think it’s OK to discriminate against non-hetero customers in public businesses?

          • Gary

            Because they wanted to force others to pretend they accepted them. Equal rights would have been allowing blacks to decline business transactions they didn’t want. When people want to do business with each other, you don’t need a law to make that happen.

          • Gary

            They seem to be saying that homosexuality is fine, except in certain circumstances. It seems inconsistent to me. And a bit hypocritical. Like the florist in Oregon who welcomed homosexuals as customers, except in one circumstance.

          • Az1seeit

            That is clearly your judgement of them based on your tolerance level. In this case, however, I think their distinction has to do with them being complicit in their eyes.

          • Gary

            Probably so.

  • Gary

    The refusal of some to endorse those who liberals like most really gets under their skin. It drives them crazier than they already are. But it shows an inconsistency with liberals. Every liberal I know accepts evolution as a fact. And, if evolution is a fact, it means that “homophobia” (opposition to homosexuality) is a natural variation in humans. Just like homosexuality is a natural variation in humans, as the liberals like to say. If homophobia is a result of evolution, just like homosexuality is, why don’t liberals accept it as that? They never do. They always object to it, as if the homophobes had a choice in it.

  • Gary

    Liberals are also inconsistent about morality. They claim that morality is subjective, but they also claim that bigotry and discrimination against homosexuals and non-whites is “wrong” for everyone. That contradicts their claim that morality is subjective, but they don’t seem to care. They just pretend the contradiction doesn’t exist.

  • A business is not a church. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about a bakery or a restaurant, a photo studio or a factory. They aren’t in the business of providing spiritual guidance or enforcing moral doctrines. They are there to turn a profit. As such, they are obligated to abide by prevailing civil rights laws, whether those laws protect people from discrimination based on race, religion, or sexual orientation.

    Conservative columnist Erick Erickson came to the defense of Christian business owners: “Committed Christians believe in a doctrine of vocation. They believe that their work is a form of ministry. Through their work, they can share the gospel and glorify God.”

    Oh, and also rake in as much money as possible. You can wax poetic all you want about “glorifying God,” but at the end of the day these businesses wouldn’t exist were it not for the profit motive.

    Steve Tennes’ Country Mill is a moneymaking venture. Couples pay him money to have weddings at his picturesque location. His is a BUSINESS, therefore he can’t turn away paying customers just because he has theological disagreements with them.

    • Timothy Horton

      What these people don’t get is that it’s the illegal discrimination being targeted, not their religion. The excuse given for the illegal discrimination is not germane. It Country Mill was run by atheists and refused service to same sex couples because “Gays are icky” they’d be just as much in violation.

      Still every time one of these cases pops up we get the whine YOU ARE AGAINST CHRISTIANS!! but what we’re really against is society-harming discrimination against minorities.

      • Gary

        Since it is unlikely their farm falls under the jurisdiction of East Lansing laws, they would not be violating East Lansing laws.

      • Zeke Clinton

        Good point Tim but its only a start. If one wants to sell produce in East Lansing evidence of prior and continuing involvement in sodomy should be required. Its no more than a demonstration of good faith and support for diversity. The city could and should monitor it if they’re serious about human rights.

        I for one will not buy from bigots. If you don’t like a little loving same sex hanky-panky then it’s time to sell your homophobic produce somewhere that doesn’t care by basic standards of decency, equality and fairness.

        Gay Pride and Stop the Hate!

        • Rosemary Martin

          doesn’t care by basic standards of decency, equality and fairness. Zeke Clinton are you insane there is NOTHING decent in sodomy, it is a disgusting sex act. Always has been and always will be. Evil nasty sick sex act. Christians can not support it read the last verse of Romans chapter 1, in fact read from verse 16 to the end, we are not supposed to support this evil in any way or be any part of it.

          • Rosemary Martin

            Gay people got the laws against sodomy thrown out, it was a crime when I was growing up, they the sixties happened and the perverts of the world put their plan in action and we have gone down hill since then. I can’t wait for the return of Christ and all evil will be burned up.

          • Enjoy your wait.

    • Gary

      The laws of East Lansing don’t apply to his farm, which is out of their jurisdiction.

      What you are saying is that people who are in business must leave their morals at home when they come to work. If they did that, customers would have to watch them very closely to keep from being cheated.

      • Timothy Horton

        East Lansing has every right to deny a permit to any business not meeting their code of conduct in dealing with the public.

        • Gary

          Only if they violate their code within the East Lansing jurisdiction.

          • Timothy Horton

            They don’t have to actively violate the East Lancing code. They have announced their intention to violate it with the business practices which is grounds to deny them a permit.

          • Gary

            That is not true. There is no evidence they have refused to sell their products at the Farmer’s Market in East Lansing to whoever wants to buy them. What they do on their farm is not the business of East Lansing.

          • Timothy Horton

            The city doesn’t have to wait until a crime is committed to deny a permit to someone who has violated the law in the past and publicly announced they will be violating the law in the future.

          • Gary

            What law, within the jurisdiction of East Lansing, have they violated? None.

    • Hmmm…

      Got some double speak going on here. You assign a strong profit motive to these Christian businesses, yet they are turning down profits rather than participate in supporting something objectionable to them. You deny them the right to do so, saying since they are a business, they are somehow compelled to take all business. These are people, functioning in multiple realms of life. America has traditionally provided the right to do this. Are you advocating that now be changed?

  • Gary

    Since the earth is entering a major mass extinction event because of climate change, the farmers will soon not have anything to sell. The Farmer’s Market will soon close. The liberal pagans who run East Lansing will have to find another way to punish the farmers.

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