For the past six years, one Michigan family has shared their organic fruit at a local farmers market, but now their religious beliefs are standing in the way of that tradition.
The kerfuffle between Steve Tennes, who owns a 120-acre orchard in Charlotte, Michigan, and the city officials in East Lansing — which is more than 20 miles away — began when he expressed his views on gay marriage in a Facebook post last year.
Following the initial Facebook post, which was published in response to a lesbian woman interested in hosting her wedding at Tennes’ orchard, Country Mill, the Michigan farmer received a warning from an East Lansing official that if he tried selling fruit at the city’s farmers market, it could incite protests.
But when Tennes — along with his wife Bridget and their children — gathered at the market last summer to sell their organic apples, peaches, and cherries, no protesters showed up.
Regardless, East Lansing officials decided to ban the Tennes family from participating in this year’s farmers market, which resumes Sunday, citing the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance that covers sexual orientation, The Daily Signal reported.
In 1972, East Lansing became the first community in the U.S. to enact an anti-discrimination ordinance that provided protections for the LGBT community. It blocked the city from discriminating based on sexual orientation in its employment, housing, public accommodations, and services.
So now, the Tennes family is suing East Lansing for religious discrimination. The Alliance Defending Freedom is representing the family farmers.
Tennes, a Marine veteran and the spouse of an Army veteran, told The Daily Signal that their decision to file a lawsuit is consistent with their philosophy of defending freedom.
“My wife Bridget and I volunteered to serve our country in the military to protect freedom,” Tennes said, “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,” he said.
All of this started in 2014, when two lesbian women sought to book Country Mill for their wedding ceremony, but the Tennes family turned them down.
According to a legal complaint about the ordeal, Tennes said he had a “civil” conversation with the two women, explaining why he doesn’t host same-sex weddings at his orchard. He even recommended other venues that would be willing to host their ceremony.
The two women were married in 2015 at another orchard, and in August, one of the women published a Facebook post discouraging people from doing business with Country Mill, according to The Daily Signal.
In response, Tennes announced on the Country Mill Facebook page that his orchard would no longer host any weddings.
Then in December, Tennes announced Country Mill would resume hosting weddings, but he made clear it would be only for unions between “one man and one woman.”
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.
It was this December posting that sparked East Lansing’s decision to block Country Mill from participating in the farmers market this year.
In March, after filing an application to participate in the market, Tennes received a letter from East Lansing officials, telling him he had been rejected as a vendor because “Country Mill’s general business practices do not comply with East Lansing’s civil rights ordinances and public policy against discrimination.”
East Lansing Mayor Mark Meadows told the Lansing State Journal that the decision to block Tennes’ orchard had nothing to do with the family’s religious beliefs but was instead related to 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,“ the mayor said.
Kate Anderson, legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, argued lawmakers in East Lansing are “setting a standard” of religious discrimination.
“East Lansing is setting a standard that you cannot participate in our public venues and you cannot participate in our marketplace,” she said. “We can hurt your livelihood if you don’t ascribe to a belief that we agree with.”
This isn't the first time a person's religious beliefs have impacted his professional life.
In February, a Christian florist from Washington state who declined to make arrangements for same-sex weddings decided to take her case to the U.S. Supreme Court after the Washington Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that she violated anti-discrimination laws.
And last month, a Christian staffer at a public school in Maine filed a religious discrimination lawsuit after administrators reportedly threatened to fire her for privately telling a co-worker she would pray for him.