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City can’t exclude business from farmer's market over gay marriage opposition: court

Steve Tennes poses for a photo at his farm, Country Mill Farms, outside of Charlotte, Michigan.
Steve Tennes poses for a photo at his farm, Country Mill Farms, outside of Charlotte, Michigan. | Alliance Defending Freedom

A Michigan city cannot prohibit a local businessman from taking part in a farmer's market because he refuses for religious reasons to host same-sex weddings on his property, a federal judge has ruled. 

U.S. District Judge Paul L. Maloney ruled Monday that the City of East Lansing can't lawfully bar Country Mill Farms from its annual farmer's market due to owner Stephen Tennes' refusal to host same-sex weddings on the farm's property.

"The City has not established that the decision to deny CMF a vendor license is narrowly tailored to meet a compelling government interest," wrote Maloney, an appointee of former Republican President George W. Bush. 

"Defendant has not offered any particular justification for enforcing the nondiscrimination ordinance against Plaintiffs. Nor has Defendant explained why it declines to offer Plaintiffs an exemption from the nondiscrimination ordinance when the ordinance provides objective and discretionary exemptions to other business entities."

CMF and Tennes are represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal nonprofit that has successfully argued several religious liberty cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

ADF Senior Counsel Kate Anderson, who argued the case on behalf of the farm before the court in July 2021, praised the ruling in a statement Tuesday. 

"Steve and his family-run Country Mill Farms happily serve all customers as a valued vendor at East Lansing's farmer's market, and he's grateful he can continue his longtime partnership with the city and its residents," stated Anderson. "The district court's decision rightly protects Steve's freedom to operate his business according to his convictions."

In August 2016, Tennes posted a message on CMF's Facebook page explaining that his business refused to host same-sex wedding ceremonies on its property on religious grounds.

East Lansing officials became aware of Tennes' position and, in January 2017, rejected an application by CMF to participate in the East Lansing Farmer's Market that year.

Tennes and CMF filed suit in May 2017 against the city, arguing that officials violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by engaging in religious discrimination against the farmer.

City officials argue that they are justified in denying the application because CMF allegedly violated a city ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.

"Contrary to this policy and the constitutionally protected rights of all couples, The Country Mill has advertised that their business practice is to prohibit same-sex couples from holding weddings at their orchard in Charlotte, Michigan," stated the city, as reported by Michigan Radio in 2017.

"Their business practices violate the City of East Lansing's long-standing ordinance that protects sexual orientation as well as the Supreme Court's ruling that grants the right for same-sex couples to be married."

In September 2017, Maloney granted a preliminary injunction on behalf of CMF, which remained in effect during the course of the litigation, allowing CMF to participate in the farmer's market.  

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