All Steve and Bridget Tennes want is to sell their apples, peaches and blueberries at a Michigan farmers market without being required to get into the same-sex wedding business, and they are hoping for an assist from Colorado baker Jack Phillips.
The Tenneses, who make their home on the Country Mill Farm with their six children, contend that their Catholic faith has been maligned by East Lansing officials who have sought to bar them from the city’s farmers market over their refusal to host same-sex ceremonies on their property.
That is where Mr. Phillips comes in. It was government animus — in that case, the state of Colorado — toward the Masterpiece Cakeshop owner that swung the Supreme Court’s decision last year in his favor after he refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. If anything, the hostility displayed by East Lansing officials is worse, said John Bursch, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom.
“In the Masterpiece case, the Supreme Court said unequivocally that when the government is hostile toward religion or religious believers, even when there’s a hint of hostility and animus, then that’s enough to invalidate government action,” said Mr. Bursch, who represents the Michigan farmers.
“Here you have government officials from the mayor to the city manager to the City Council making repeated public remarks that the Catholic views on marriage are ‘ridiculous,’ they’re ‘absurd’ and they should be changed,” he said. “The record is full of statements like that.”
The 3-year-old fight goes before a federal judge Friday in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with Mr. Tennes seeking a permanent order prohibiting the liberal college town from blocking the family’s participation in the popular farmers market.
East Lansing Mayor Mark Meadows said the city will counter by asking the court to grant a permanent order affirming “that we did the right thing” and denied that the municipality’s actions were based on religious hostility.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with their religious beliefs,” Mr. Meadows said. “They operate a business, and it’s the business operation that’s in conflict with our ordinance. Our ordinance doesn’t have anything to do with anybody’s religious beliefs. No decision here was made with regard to their religious beliefs.”
The conflict began in 2016 when Country Mill Farm responded to a question on Facebook by saying that the owners did not host same-sex weddings. They cited their “deeply held religious belief that marriage is a union of one man and one woman and Country Mill has the First Amendment right to express and act upon its beliefs.”
Country Mill was invited to the farmers market for seven years, until the city learned of the social media post. Staff reacted by adding a provision to its vendor guidelines stressing compliance with the East Lansing civil rights ordinance. When the farm applied in 2017, its application was rejected.
Mr. Tennes took the city to court and won a temporary injunction on behalf of Country Mill, which is located in Charlotte, about 22 miles from East Lansing.
Steve and Bridget Tennes are military veterans who “volunteered to serve our country and defend the rights that we have here such as freedom of religion and freedom of speech,” he said.
“So it was kind of a shock to have the city government tell us that simply stating our beliefs about marriage on Facebook, 22 miles outside of the city of East Lansing, was enough to get our family barred from the city park where we have been serving everyone without complaint for seven years in a row,” Mr. Tennes said.
Mr. Tennes, a second-generation farmer, and his family live on the 158-acre farm, which includes an orchard, pumpkin patch and cider brewery. They host special events such as weddings, birthday parties, retirement parties, school tours, corn mazes, hay rides and apple-picking days for charity.
Not everything is permitted. “As Christians, there are events on our farm that we’re not able to host, such as bachelor parties, bachelorette parties and, as a family, we decided not to participate in celebrating haunted house attractions,” he said.
Mr. Meadows said the farm would be in compliance as long as it hosted both traditional and same-sex marriages — or neither — and that the family and the farm aren’t the same entity, given that Country Mill is a corporation.
“They have a corporation that decided that as a matter of policy, it wasn’t going to allow corporate property for same-sex marriages,” Mr. Meadows said. “That would be a violation of our ordinance. Since they’re renting space on public property, we didn’t think that it was appropriate to rent space to someone who had a business that obviously discriminated against LGBTQ individuals.”
He said that “at least one couple had tried to rent the property and been denied specifically because they were a same-sex couple.”
While the city has accused the farm of discrimination, Mr. Bursch said, East Lansing officials have shown hostility to the Tennes family’s religious beliefs.
According to the court filing, council member Ruth Beier said at a public hearing, “We don’t doubt you’re allowed to be a bigot. You’re allowed to say whatever you want. You can say it on Facebook. You can say ridiculous, horrible, hateful things.”
She said in an email that it was “not long ago that a farm like this one might have prohibited interracial marriage.” City Manager George Lahanas said in a deposition that people “can say my religious belief makes me say that I can’t provide service to African Americans and they can cite the Bible for it. It doesn’t make it true.”
Do such statements constitute religious animus? Mr. Bursch thinks so, arguing that there is more evidence of hostility in the Tennes record than there was in the Jack Phillips case.
The Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruled that Mr. Phillips violated the state’s anti-discrimination ordinance by refusing to create a cake in 2012 for a same-sex wedding, but the Supreme Court reversed the decision in June.
“Really, the Masterpiece Cakeshop case turned primarily on a single comment and the animosity of one of the Colorado civil rights commissioners in many dozen pages of transcripts,” Mr. Bursch said. “And so if anything, this is a much easier case. All you have to do is take the template that the Supreme Court gave us in Masterpiece and apply it to the statements here, and the result is the same.”
With the temporary injunction in place, the Catholic farmers have continued to sell their goods at the farmers market without incident, another indication that “we continue to love and serve everyone,” Mr. Tennes said.
“That’s one reason why the city of East Lansing invited us back to their farmers market seven years in a row in writing,” he said. “Because of the way we serve everybody with dignity and respect as Christians.”