Last Friday, a federal judge issued a stay, ordering a Michigan city to reopen its farmers market to a Christian couple that was barred from selling apples because they refuse to host same-sex weddings at their orchard, a popular wedding spot. The stay will allow the farmers to sell apples at the market while their lawsuit against the city proceeds.
“The City is disappointed in the Court’s ruling,” the city of East Lansing declared in a statement on Friday. While the city announced it would consider asking for a stay and appealing the ruling, it nevertheless agreed to comply with the judge’s order to allow the couple to sell apples.
“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.
After seven years of serving “people of all backgrounds and beliefs,” Tennes recalled that last year, a Facebook user asked whether Country Mill would host a same-sex wedding.
“Due to our personal religious beliefs, we do not participate in the celebration of a same sex union,” Country Mill responded on Facebook. “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.”
As if this measured response were not enough, Country Mill added, “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.”
Even so, East Lansing took the extraordinary step of excluding the couple from the farmers market, citing the Facebook post.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney said East Lansing likely violated Tennes’ rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion, The Associated Press reported. The judge noted that East Lansing became aware of Tennes’ position and then changed its rules to require vendors to comply with the city’s civil rights ordinance. Country Mill is 22 miles away in another county.
“The context in which the vendor guidelines were amended and then applied to Country Mill supports plaintiffs’ claim that their religious beliefs or their religiously motivated conduct was the target of the city’s actions,” Maloney said.
During arguments on Wednesday, East Lansing’s attorney Michael Bogren said the city had reacted to Tennes’ conduct, not his speech or religion.
Kate Anderson, a lawyer with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a legal group representing the couple in their lawsuit, argued that East Lansing city officials “have absolutely no jurisdiction” over how Country Mill operates.
“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 added.
There is no sexual orientation/gender identity (SOGI) law in Charlotte, where Country Mill is located. While East Lansing has such a law, the couple never violated it. But by shutting these Christian farmers out of the market, East Lansing has imposed a “major financial burden” on them, Tennes said.
“Being veterans, we honestly never thought in a million years that the government would punish us for simply stating our religious beliefs via Facebook,” Tennes added.
“The most important thing is that we’re respectful of people,” his wife Bridget explained. “Our faith teaches us to treat others the way we’d treat our children, we’d treat our family.”
For its part, East Lansing argued that Country Mill was violating the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, the 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,” the city added.
How could the Tenneses be violating Obergefell? Only if they prevented same-sex couples from marrying. But that is not the point in this case at all. Not only does East Lansing have no jurisdiction, but its argument is bankrupt. The Tenneses are not preventing any 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 own property.
They even go out of their way to help same-sex couples find other venues!
This does not placate LGBT activists, however. When the Tenneses returned to the farmers market this past weekend, a lone protester greeted them with a sign reading, “Boycott Country Mill: They Practice Hate and Bigotry. Don’t Buy Country Mill Products.”
“What he has done to this community has harmed people, people of faith or of no faith,” protester Kennan Dewitt told local WLNS news. “He’s harmed them by telling them that they are less than human, that they are not worthy of respect, that they are not worthy of being allowed to have services with this business.”
Note exactly how false Dewitt’s statements are. First, he alleged that the Tenneses say same-sex couples are “less than human.” But the Tenneses gladly serve anyone at their market and on their farm — they just won’t host a same-sex wedding there.
Next, Dewitt claimed that Country Mill tells people “they are not worthy of respect,” while Bridget Tennes said her faith leads her to treat other people as if they were her own children.
Finally, the protester said the Tenneses say that lesbian and gay people “are not worthy of being allowed to have services with this business.” Steve Tennes and the Country Mill Facebook page explicitly said Country Mill would gladly serve anyone in any way, except by hosting a same-sex wedding. In fact, by holding a sign telling people to boycott Country Mill, Dewitt tacitly acknowledged that the Tenneses would sell their apples to anyone, regardless of their beliefs.
According to WLNS, many people disregarded Dewitt’s sign, gladly buying from Country Mill.
“We’re kinda just buying food here, and if you know what they’re doing and you agree with them or don’t agree with them, don’t buy their products,” farmer’s market vendor Drew Kuhlman said. “But they’re not promoting marriage or not marriage or whatever here, so it just kind of seems a little extraneous.”
If only every American viewed it that way. LGBT megadonor Tim Gill declared that his mission is to “punish the wicked,” by which he means making sure that no Christian business owner who provides wedding services will be allowed to opt out of endorsing a same-sex wedding.
The Tenneses may have won this first battle in their case, but even their lawsuit is far from settled. A similar case, that of Colorado baker Jack Phillips, is headed to the Supreme Court.