Judge Stops City's Ban on Christian-Owned Business at Farmer's Market Over Gay Marriage Opposition

Country Mill Farms
Representatives of Country Mill Farms at a city of East Lansing farmers' market. In May 2017, Country Mill filed a lawsuit against East Lansing over the city banning them because of their refusal to host same-sex weddings on their property. |

A federal judge has granted a preliminary injunction to a Michigan farmer who was barred from selling his products at an East Lansing market because of his opposition to gay marriage.

Earlier this year, Country Mill Farms sued East Lansing for banning the business from its farmer's marker over comments made against gay marriage on the business' Facebook page.

U.S. District Court Judge Paul L. Maloney of the Western District of Michigan granted the preliminary injunction on behalf of Country Mill in a ruling on Friday.

In his order, Maloney concluded that Country Mill and its owner, Stephen Tennes, "have a substantial likelihood of success on at least one of their claims brought under the First Amendment."

"Plaintiffs are entitled to a preliminary injunction. The city of East Lansing must allow Plaintiffs to participate in the East Lansing Farmer's Market for the remainder of the 2017 season," wrote Maloney.

"On the evidence before this court, the city amended its Vendor Guidelines and then used the changes to deny Country Mill's vendor application. There exists a substantial likelihood that Plaintiffs will be able to prevail on the merits of their claims for speech retaliation and for free exercise of religion."

The Alliance Defending Freedom's legal counsel Kate Anderson, who argued in favor of the motion on behalf of Tennes and Country Mill, said in a statement released Friday that "a farmer should be free to live and speak according to his deeply held religious beliefs without fear of government punishment."

"As the court found, East Lansing officials changed their market policy to shut out Steve because they don't like his Catholic beliefs regarding marriage," stated Anderson.

"The court was right to issue this order, which will allow Steve to return to the 2017 farmer's market while his case moves forward."

In August 2016, Tennes posted a message on Country Mill Farms' Facebook page explaining that his business refused to host same-sex wedding ceremonies.

A devout Catholic, Tennes said he was religiously opposed to the practice, but that he would refer same-sex couples to another local orchard.

In January, East Lansing barred Country Mill from the farmer's market for the 2017 season, officially denying a vendor application in March.

In late May, Country Mill and Tennes filed a lawsuit against the city of East Lansing over the denial of application, arguing that the city's actions were unconstitutional.

"Tennes' Facebook statement professing his religious beliefs about marriage and his decision to only host and participate in only those weddings on his family farm that comport with those beliefs violates no federal, state, or local law or policy," the lawsuit reads in part.

"The policy and denial that followed violates Plaintiffs' First and Fourteenth Amendment rights because it regulates Plaintiffs' speech based on its content and viewpoint, creates a religious gerrymander designed to punish Plaintiffs for their religious beliefs, and conditions Plaintiffs' participation in a public benefit — i.e., participation in the Farmer's Market — on the surrender of Plaintiffs' constitutional rights to free speech, free press, the free exercise of religion, and equal protection under the law."

In a statement released after the suit was filed, East Lansing argued that their banning of Country Mill Farm from the market had to do with their apparent violation of a city civil rights ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of 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.

"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."

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