Steve Tennes, who owns Country Mill Farms in Charlotte, Michigan, has prevailed so far in his lawsuit against the city of East Lansing after it tossed him and his family out of its farmer’s market. A federal district court ordered the city to allow him back in for now, and there’s a good reason for that: The city is unconstitutionally discriminating against Steve and his orchard, and that’s why I joined the lawsuit to fight for his freedom.
A second-generation family business, Country Mill grows apples, blueberries, peaches, cherries, sweet corn, and pumpkins. It hosts numerous community and charitable events. And it has sold its produce at the East Lansing Farmer’s Market for many years. In fact, from 2011 to 2016, the city expressly invited Country Mill to participate in the market as an “invitational vendor” because of its exceptional service.
Everything changed in 2016 when the city learned that Steve had posted on Facebook that he still adhered to the teachings of the Catholic Church that marriage is a sacred union between one man and one woman. Steve also adheres to the Church’s teaching that every individual, as a child of God, has immense dignity and worth and should be treated as such. Accordingly, that is how he treats all his customers and employees. No matter, because Steve’s beliefs about marriage were different than the city’s, and because he had the gall to state them publicly, Steve and Country Mill had to be banished.
It used to be a common American value that everyone had the freedom to live and speak without government coercion. But that value apparently does not extend to a person who respectfully expresses one particular viewpoint on marriage in the public square.
At first, the city instructed Country Mill not to come to the farmer’s market because of possible protests. Having broken no law, Country Mill attended the market anyway. No protest materialized, either that week or the rest of the 2016 season. So the city created a policy to exclude Country Mill by incorporating the city’s ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. Of course, Country Mill does not discriminate based on sexual orientation; customers and employees are welcomed regardless of that. Steve simply expressed his belief in marriage’s meaning as taught by the Church.
Nonetheless, the city barred the Market Planning Committee from sending an invitation to Country Mill, as it had done for the past six years, and the city also directed the committee to send Country Mill’s application to the city if Country Mill submitted one. No other vendor had the same restriction. And when Country Mill did apply through the normal, non-invitational process, the city rejected the application and told Country Mill that it would reconsider only if Steve changed his religious beliefs and expression.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees every citizen the right to free speech and to freely exercise his or her religion. Yet East Lansing has denied Steve and Country Mill the ability to participate in the public square solely because the city dislikes Steve’s beliefs and his willingness to make public statements about them. That is why Steve reluctantly chose to sue and ask a federal court for an injunction ordering the city to allow Country Mill to participate once again in the farmer’s market. Reasoning that Steve is likely to prevail in his claims, the court granted the injunction on Sept. 15, meaning he can participate in the market for the remainder of the year while his lawsuit proceeds.
The city says it isn’t targeting Steve for his beliefs, but that argument fell flat with the court and fails in general. Steve isn’t breaking any law except for the one the city officials intentionally created to exclude him from the farmer’s market. They did this because he doesn’t live his life and operate his farm—22 miles outside of their jurisdiction—according to their beliefs about marriage rather than his own beliefs, which the First Amendment protects.
When I heard about Steve’s dilemma after his attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom filed suit, I felt compelled to get involved. It used to be a common American value that everyone had the freedom to live and speak without government coercion. But that value apparently does not extend to a person who respectfully expresses one particular viewpoint on marriage in the public square. The city has forced Steve to change his beliefs and be silent or lose a substantial portion of his business. That is a stunning result not only for Steve and Country Mill, but for the millions of business owners and workers who believe that they have the responsibility to publicly express their faith and to practice it in their business vocation.
Whether religious, agnostic, or atheist, no individual should be forced to choose between the government’s orthodoxy and withdrawing from the public square. That is one of our country’s founding principles. And that is why Steve’s case is so important, not only to Michigan citizens, but to people everywhere. I look forward to the federal courts continuing to uphold the right of everyone to speak and act in accord with their conscience without being punished by the government for doing so.