A Michigan family farmer will enter U.S. District Court on Tuesday hoping to gain a place to sell produce at the farmers market in East Lansing after the city stripped him of that spot over his religious opposition to gay marriage.
Steve and Bridget Tennes own Country Mill Farms, a working farm and orchard in Charlotte that they also make available for rental as a wedding venue.
A Roman Catholic, Mr. Tennes posted on Facebook in 2016 that he and his family follow the church’s teachings on marriage and therefore decline to participate in same-sex ceremonies by renting the venue for such events.
This caused East Lansing to draft a 2017 policy that barred Mr. Tennes — and, his attorneys say, only him — from getting a vendor’s license at the East Lansing Farmer’s Market.
Citing the city’s code against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, known as Chapter 22, East Lansing said farmers market vendors “will embody the spirit” of the venue by “complying with the City of East Lansing‘s Civil Rights ordinances and the public policy against discrimination contained in Chapter 22 of the East Lansing City Code while at the ELFM and as a general business practice.”
The city argues that it wanted to hold vendors to the same standards that city contractors must respect.
Tim McCaffrey, director of parks and recreation for the city, said in a deposition that East Lansing “does not look for violations” of the policy, but will respond to those brought to its attention.
For his part, Mr. Tennes asserted online the farm “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.”
Kate Anderson, a senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, the law firm representing Mr. Tennes, said in a statement an attempt to regulate the actions of a business located outside the boundaries of the city of East Lansing creates a “fear of government punishment” for the free exercise of religious beliefs.
“The city of East Lansing‘s attempts to not only damage Steve‘s livelihood and reputation, but to change his deeply-held views on marriage, is wrong and violates our most basic constitutional freedoms,” Ms. Anderson said.
“While ousting him from the market, city officials publicly ridiculed his faith. One official even called Tennes’ Catholic beliefs ‘bigot[ed],’ ‘ridiculous, horrible, [and] hateful.’ We are looking forward to bringing these issues to the court this week,” she said.
With a nod towards the 2018 Supreme Court ruling in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, former Michigan solicitor general John Bursch, now an ADF attorney, said that “the U.S. Supreme Court has rightfully rejected this type of religious hostility.”
The city officials’ stated hostility clinches the matter, he said.
“Even this district court at an earlier stage in this case acknowledged that East Lansing had likely passed an unconstitutional ordinance. We look forward to proving why the court should permanently prevent East Lansing from targeting Steve on the basis of his Catholic beliefs,” Mr. Bursch said.