Michigan farmer to court: Stop city’s religious discrimination, let me sell food to everyone
WHO: Alliance Defending Freedom Legal Counsel Kate Anderson, Country Mill Farms owner Steve Tennes
WHAT: Available for media interviews following hearing in Country Mill Farms v. City of East Lansing
WHEN: Wednesday, Sept. 13. Anderson available immediately following hearing, which begins at 9 a.m. EDT; Tennes available between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. EDT by appointment only: (781) 856-2467.
WHERE: Anderson: U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, Southern Division, 410 W. Michigan Ave., Room 174, Kalamazoo; Tennes: Country Mill Farms, Charlotte
ADF Legal Counsel Kate Anderson will be available for media interviews following her argument that city officials targeted Steve Tennes for his beliefs and then went to great lengths to expel him from the market he has served since 2010. Members of the media may also schedule interviews with Tennes that will take place between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. EDT at Country Mill Farms by calling (781) 856-2467.
“All Americans should be free to live and speak according to their deeply held religious beliefs without fear of government punishment,” said Anderson. “Yet East Lansing officials changed their market policy to shut out Steve Tennes because they don’t like his Catholic beliefs regarding marriage. Courts have repeatedly rejected these types of practices as unconstitutional discrimination. That is why we are asking the court to issue a temporary order to let Steve return to serving the market while his case is heard.”
At issue is an unconstitutional, unlawful, and complex policy that city officials adopted specifically to shut out Tennes and Country Mills Farms, his family’s fruit orchard, purely because he posted on Facebook his belief in biblical marriage. The city did this even though Tennes, his family, and the orchard are in Charlotte, 22 miles from East Lansing, well outside the city’s boundaries and beyond its jurisdiction.
After seeing Tennes’ Facebook post from August 2016, city officials took several actions to drive him out of the market. First, they told him they did not want Country Mill Farms at the next scheduled market, and they warned him that protests could occur if his farm continued to participate. Tennes, a military veteran, decided to continue to serve his customers at the market. No one protested. That did not change city officials’ resolve that Tennes could no longer participate in the market due to his statement of his religious beliefs.
For the first time in six years, when applications opened for the 2017 Farmer’s Market, the city did not invite Tennes to participate in the market. City officials also changed the application process for Country Mill Farms only, removing Tennes’ vendor application from the normal committee review process and reviewing it directly instead. Since Tennes and Country Mill Farms did not violate any law while at the market or in Charlotte, the officials crafted a new vendor policy that extended the city’s Human Relations Ordinance, bypassing jurisdictional limits under Michigan law, to expel Tennes from the market.
The new policy prohibits market vendors from making any statement “which indicates that an individual’s patronage or presence at a place of public accommodation…is…unwelcome…because of sexual orientation” or other designated classes. Yet it does not define any of the key terms that would govern enforcement.
Based on the new policy, an official then informed Steve by letter that he was not in compliance and that Country Mill Farms was prohibited from participating in the 2017 market, scheduled for June through October. The notice included an attachment of Steve’s December 2016 Facebook post speaking about his religious beliefs as evidence, despite the fact that the post is constitutionally protected free speech and Country Mill Farms has never turned away a customer based on sexual orientation.
The complaint in Country Mill Farms v. City of East Lansing, which ADF attorneys filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, explains how the city policy violated the Constitution’s guarantees of free speech, freedom of religion, and equal protection—in addition to other protections. It requests that the court restore Country Mill Farms’ constitutionally protected freedoms and halt the discriminatory policy. It also asks the court to declare the city’s policies unlawful and unconstitutional, and award nominal and compensatory damages, so that Tennes and Country Mill Farms can once again serve all customers at the market.
Former Michigan Solicitor General John Bursch of Bursch Law PLLC in Caledonia, one of nearly 3,200 attorneys allied with ADF, is serving as local counsel in the case for Tennes and Country Mill Farms. ADF-allied attorneys James Wierenga and Jeshua Lauka with the Grand Rapids law firm of David & Wierenga, P.C. are also serving as local counsel.
- Pronunciation guide: Wierenga (Weer-ENG’-uh)