Last August, a farming family was banned from the East Lansing Farmer’s Market because they had the temerity to post their position on same-sex marriage on Facebook. The two gladly served and associated with LGBT people, but they refused to host a same-sex wedding on their farm. For this reason, East Lansing overreached its legal boundaries to exclude them.
“This isn’t just about our ability to sell at the farmers market, it’s really about every American’s right to be able to make a living and not have to worry about the fear of being punished by the government,” Steve Tennes, owner of Country Mill, told The Daily Signal in a video interview.
Tennes briefly explained the case. “For the last seven years, our family farm has packed up our apples and blueberries and peaches and driven them 22 miles to the city of East Lansing, where we’ve served people of all backgrounds and beliefs at their city-run farmers market.” But last year, the city told them never to come back.
“We had a person on our Facebook page ask us what our beliefs were about marriage,” the farmer explained. “We gave an honest answer to a very complex question.”
Here is the balanced answer they gave to the question (emphasis added).
Thank you for inquiring about our family farm. We do host weddings on our farm. We have had same sex couples inquire about getting married at our orchard. Due to our personal religious beliefs, we do not participate in the celebration of a same sex union. We have and will continue to respectfully direct wedding inquiries to another mid-Michigan orchard that has more experience in hosting same sex weddings. We welcome all customers for our other activities and products on the farm. We have friends, family and business associates in the LGBT community. We respect other people’s beliefs and we can only hope that others will respect ours. We have always tried our best to be respectful in this area. Thank you for your understanding.
Not only did Country Mill’s response emphasize respect for LGBT people, but it also emphasized that when same-sex couples came to the farm inquiring about getting married there, the family had a clear policy of directing the couple to another specific venue.
Nevertheless, the city of East Lansing asked the Tenneses never to sell at their farmer’s market again, specifically citing the Facebook post as the reason to exclude Country Mill from the city’s market. The farming family decided to take the city to court.
Kate Anderson, a lawyer with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a legal group representing the Tenneses in their case, explained that East Lansing city officials “have absolutely no jurisdiction.” Anderson argued that “what they have tried to do with this targeted policy is regulate how Steve speaks and lives out his beliefs on his own farm, and that’s wrong at a level that we aren’t necessarily seeing in any other cases.”
Anderson explained that there is no sexual orientation/gender identity (SOGI) law in Charlotte, where Country Mill is located. East Lansing has such a law, but “Steve has never violated it.” Now, “they’re trying to use their SOGI public accommodation law to regulate what Steve can do on his very own property, 22 miles outside the city.”
“It’s a major financial burden to be shut out and excluded from the farmers market,” Steve Tennes said. “That is the largest farmers market that our family takes our apples and food.”
Both Steve and Bridget Tennes served in the military. “Being veterans, we honestly never thought in a million years that the government would punish us for simply stating our religious beliefs via Facebook,” the husband said.
“The most important thing is that we’re respectful of people,” his wife Bridget chimed in. “Our faith teaches us to treat others the way we’d treat our children, we’d treat our family, and that’s where they see the commonality between us, is that we are being respectful of all people.”
When The Daily Signal reached out to the city of East Lansing, that city argued that Country Mill was violating the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 case which legalized same-sex marriage.
“The Country Mill has advertised that their business practice is to prohibit same-sex couples from holding weddings at their orchard in Charlotte, Michigan,” the city said. “Their business practice violates the city of East Lansing’s long-standing ordinance that protects sexual orientation as well as the Supreme Court’s ruling that grants the right for same-sex couples to be married.”
There are two gaping holes in this response. First, according to ADF, East Lansing has no jurisdiction over Country Mill — so their SOGI law does not apply. Secondly, the Tenneses are not prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying — they are merely reserving their First Amendment rights (free speech, free association and free exercise of religion) to refuse to endorse a public event by hosting it on their property. The Tenneses even go out of their way to help couples find another venue.
Tennes has not violated East Lansing’s SOGI law, and he has not violated the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell, either. He has, however, spoken by the dictates of his conscience that his family’s farm will “not participate in the celebration of a same sex union.”
Apparently, such measured opting out is anathema to the East Lansing city council. But attendees at the farmer’s market expressed support for the Tenneses and condemnation for the city.
“I personally don’t agree with their decision about banning the weddings, but I don’t think it should carry over to the city trying to regulate what everyone’s belief is,” one man attending the market told The Daily Signal.
“This is ludicrous. To me, this is PC at its worst,” a woman attendee added.
The Tenneses’ case is similar to many others in recent years. A Washington state florist and Oregon bakers were fined for refusing to serve same-sex weddings, but they each gladly served the lesbian and gay people who requested wedding services, when they asked for non-wedding-related goods. An LGBT group in Ohio actually announced plans to try to force churches to host same-sex weddings on their property, suggesting that this issue is likely to escalate.
The Supreme Court announced last month that it will consider a similar case, that of Colorado baker Jack Phillips. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Phillips’ free speech, free association, and free exercise of religion, allowing him to opt out of serving a gay wedding cake, that case will set a powerful precedent for the Tenneses.
In an interview last year with PJ Media, Christian author Eric Metaxas warned that in such cases an “activist government effectively establishes a religion … by taking very strong positions on ultimate questions like the human person, on sexuality.”
Government, from the East Lansing city council to the Supreme Court, should be a neutral arbiter, protecting same-sex couples’ right to get married along with the First Amendment rights of bakers, florists, churches, and farmers to opt out of endorsing such weddings.
Click “Load More” to watch the Daily Signal video.