Orchard sues East Lansing for exclusion from Farmer's Market, cites religious freedom
The City of East Lansing has been named a defendant in a federal lawsuit alleging the city crafted a new policy to bar a local orchard owner from operating as a vendor at the city’s farmer’s market.
The lawsuit claims the city created said policy “solely because the City dislikes the farmer’s profession of his religious beliefs about marriage on Facebook.”
Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian non-profit organization with the goal of advocating for religious freedom, filed the 40-page lawsuit on behalf of Stephen Tennes, owner of The Country Mill. Tennes posted to Facebook multiple times that the orchard would not host weddings of same-sex couples.
The Country Mill had participated in the long-running East Lansing Farmer’s Market since 2010, but was denied entry in this year’s farmer’s market after the city claimed the orchard’s business practices violated East Lansing’s civil rights policy.
“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, MI,” the city statement read. “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.”
Tennes, a Roman Catholic, shared his belief that marriage is solely between a man and a woman in a Facebook post on Aug. 24, 2016, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit further alleges the city, upon finding the post, immediately took action to remove The Country Mill from the Farmer’s Market.
“First, City officials pressured Country Mill to leave the Market, telling the Tennes family that because of their statement of their religious beliefs (1) the City did not want them at the Market that coming Sunday and (2) people would protest and disrupt the Market if Country Mill continued to participate in it,” the lawsuit alleges.
“When Country Mill decided to attend the remaining two months of the Farmer’s Market season, which they did without any protests or disruptions, East Lansing stopped asking Country Mill to leave and started work to ban Country Mill by City Policy.”
East Lansing City Manager George Lahanas confirmed the city had asked Country Mill to voluntarily leave the market place after looking into the post.
“They said they still wanted to come and then they came back (and) said we will not do any weddings at all, so therefore there would be no discrimination because we’re not doing weddings,” Lahanas said. “We said that was satisfactory and they were free to come to the farmer’s market.”
However, The Country Mill backtracked on its wedding policy as Tennes reopened the orchard to hosting marriages, though only for opposite-sex couples, according to a December, 12, 2016 Facebook post.
“The Country Mill family and its staff have and will continue to participate in hosting the ceremonies held at our orchard. It remains our deeply held religious belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman and Country Mill has the First Amendment Right to express and act upon its beliefs,” the post read.
The lawsuit alleges further that East Lansing did not invite the Country Mill back to the 2017 Farmer’s Market, forcing them to apply to be a vendor again.
“This year, in I think January, they applied and they put back on their website that they would be excluding same-sex couples again from marriage, but still opening it up for marriage for opposite-sex couples,” Lahanas said.
The new policy, Lahanas said, made sure vendors could not be discriminatory in business practices overall. If a business denied someone upon race or religion in one town, it could not come to East Lansing and say it would not discriminate in the city.
“We’re going to say, well no, it’s your business practice, whether it's here or somewhere else. Our rule is we’re going to exclude you from our farmer’s market,” Lahanas said.
“They say it’s because of their Facebook post and their free speech, that’s nonsense… it’s because of their business practice of excluding people, (that’s) the issue. They can have any belief they want, but if they’re excluding people, that’s the difference.”
Lahanas further said the city had yet to be served. Therefore, no timetable exists regarding the lawsuit.
The State News left a message with The Country Mill phone number listed on its website. The Country Mill has not responded to a request for comment.