A trial began this week in a federal courtroom in Michigan over whether the City of East Lansing (City) violated the free speech and religious freedom rights of Steve Tennes, the owner of Country Mill Farms, an orchard and wedding venue located over 20 miles outside the city limits.
Tennes had participated in the City’s farmer’s market held every week in East Lansing from 2010 to 2016 without incident. The City grants yearly permits to vendors allowing them to participate.
In 2016, in response to a question about his wedding venue business on the farm’s Facebook page, Tennes posted his religious beliefs concerning marriage and clarified that he would only host weddings between one man and one woman.
When Tennes’ Facebook post was reported to City officials, they pressured him to voluntarily cease from participating in the farmer’s market but didn’t ban him. He chose to continue participating but informed the City that he would temporarily cease all wedding venue business at his farm while he re-evaluated his business policy.
It’s important to note here that the City has a nondiscrimination ordinance on its books that prohibits a “public accommodation” in East Lansing from discriminating against various protected classes, including sexual orientation. Since Tennes’ farm/wedding venue was located outside of East Lansing, his wedding policy at the time did not violate the ordinance, and Tennes assured the City in writing that he would sell to everyone at the farmer’s market, regardless of sexual orientation or any other protected class.
That wasn’t good enough for the City, however. The relationship between city officials and Tennes deteriorated. A couple of events subsequently provoked a legal confrontation.
First, Tennes posted a new message on his farm’s Facebook page at the end of 2016 outlining that while he would gladly sell anyone the produce from his orchards, his religious beliefs about marriage would not permit him to rent his wedding venue for any ceremony except those involving one man and one woman.
Second, the City amended its farmer’s market ordinance to incorporate its nondiscrimination policy, directly targeting Tennes. In the public debate at its city council meeting over the issue, one council member called the Tennes family’s Catholic beliefs about marriage and human sexuality “ridiculous, horrible, [and] hateful things.” Other City officials publicly ridiculed the family’s religious beliefs and suggested that they must change if Tennes was to continue doing business at the farmer’s market.
Then the City denied Tennes a farmer’s market permit for 2017. With the help of attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), Tennes sued, and a federal judge issued a temporary injunction requiring the City to issue a permit to Tennis while the lawsuit runs its course. The judge ruled that the preliminary evidence suggested there was a substantial likelihood that Tennes would ultimately succeed at trial in his argument that the City punished him for his speech and for his religious beliefs.
And now, finally, the trial is taking place this week. Will Tennes succeed?
The trial necessarily involves loads of disputed facts and arguments concerning the intentions of City officials. So, there’s no way to predict Tennes’ chances of another win. What we do know, however, is that since this brouhaha erupted in 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court has decided several cases in favor of religious freedom and free speech. The most prominent of those cases are, of course, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission and Fulton v. Philadelphia, both of which dealt with the application of sexual orientation nondiscrimination laws against religious individuals or entities. Both were decided in favor of the religious parties.
And that bodes well for the Tennes family, ADF Senior Counsel and Vice President of Appellate Advocacy John Bursch noted in a press release.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has rightfully rejected this type of religious hostility. Even this district court at an earlier stage in this case acknowledged that East Lansing had likely passed an unconstitutional ordinance,” Bursch said. “We look forward to proving why the court should permanently prevent East Lansing from targeting Steve on the basis of his Catholic beliefs.”
The case is Country Mill Farms, LLC v. City of East Lansing.
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