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This farmer is fighting his city’s anti-Christian discrimination

Steve Tennes, owner of Country Mill Farms in East Lansing, Mich., wants to be able to sell the (literal) fruits of his labor. But thanks to a new policy at his local farmers market, he won’t be able to do so this summer.

Tennes, a Marine Corps veteran and practicing Catholic who runs a family fruit orchard, filed a lawsuit against the city of East Lansing Wednesday for enacting a policy he says discriminates against his religion’s view of marriage as a sacramental union between one man and one woman.

The story is becoming all too familiar, even if the kind of business involved seems relatively new.

Tennes’ problems began with a simple Facebook post. In 2016, when he was asked about how his privately owned business would handle requests to service same-sex weddings on his farm, he responded that he would run his business in accordance with his faith and refer such prospective clients to a comparable vendor who could perform the service without a conflict of conscience.

That answer didn’t sit well with the operators of the East Lansing Farmer’s Market. Tennes claims the city then began to pressure him to change his policy, with one city official informing him that his religious views were in violation of East Lansing’s civil rights ordinances.

As Tennes’ lawsuit explains, though the farmers market was powerless in taking any punitive action due to the fact that Country Mill was 22 miles outside of city limits, that changed with a 2017 policy change that effectively extended East Lansing’s ordinances to Tennes’ farm.

The city did this when it changed the permit applications this year to apply the codes to the farmer’s market and denied the Tennes family’s application for a permit in March. Kate Anderson, attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom (who is representing Tennes), says this course of events shows a targeted discrimination against a group’s deeply-held religious views.

Anderson says that, in following the chain of events, the pattern indicating the targeting of Steve Tennes and Country Mill Farms is pretty clear.

The policy now requires vendors to comply with city discrimination ordinances “while at the market and as a general business practice,” and bars vendors from saying anything that “indicates that an individual’s patronage or presence at a place of public accommodation [is] unwelcome or unacceptable because of...sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression.”

What it does not specify are the definitions of any of the key terms, like “discrimination,” “unwelcome,” “objectionable,” “unacceptable,” and “undesirable.” As such, this gives government officials a wide swath to arbitrarily and unilaterally determine which viewpoints are acceptable, and which ones are not.

“It gives city officials virtually unfettered discretion to apply that any way that they want,” Anderson told CR over the phone, “including against speech and belief as unconstitutional applications.”

“It’s particularly attenuated to say that someone can’t sell apples to everyone in your market because they hold a belief that has nothing to do with selling fruit and produce — but you don’t like that belief,” Anderson said.

At the end of the day, Tennes wants to get back to business as usual, growing and selling

apples, peaches, blueberries, sweet corn, pumpkins, and other organic produce on a farm his family has run for over four decades. And farmers markets are a substantial part of that business, with East Lansing’s being the largest portion of that income, he says.

“The government should not force anyone to be silent about their thoughts and ideas just in order to avoid government punishment,” Tennes told CR. “Whether you’re a Muslim, a Jew, or a Christian farmer, you should be able to speak free about your beliefs, live out those beliefs, and also serve your customers.”

The city of East Lansing did not return Conservative Review’s request for comment on the story.

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