Country Mill Farms returns to East Lansing Farmer's Market
When Country Mill Farms was not invited back to the East Lansing Farmer's Market this June, owner Steve Tennes filed a religious freedom lawsuit that received national attention. The lawsuit and controversy continued a national legal debate: Can businesses refuse service to LGBT people because of their religious beliefs?
When Tennes filed his case against East Lansing, he also filed a motion asking for a temporary order to allow him to go back to selling his produce in the farmers market before it closes in October. A decision made by the federal court on Sept. 15 after the preliminary hearing on Sept. 13 gave him just that.
As of now, Tennes is back at the market after scoring an early victory. But the case is far from over.
Last August, Tennes made a statement on Facebook stating his belief that marriage should only be between a man and a woman and according to Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Beier, he also refused to allow same-sex couples to rent out his orchard for weddings. This violated East Lansing's anti-discrimination policy, causing Tennes' spot at the market to be taken away, Beier said.
“East Lansing has vastly overstepped their boundaries by reaching outside of their jurisdiction to try to punish Steve and his farm for stating his religious beliefs,” Legal Counsel Kate Anderson said. “And the constitution is fully protective of free speech and freedom to exercise Steve’s religious beliefs and we see this court decision as a clear statement from the court that they understand and agree with that.”
While the case continues to be litigated, Tennes will remain at the farmers market, a decision the city believes is wrong.
“I think the decision was a mistake and I think what we risk over the next year is people using the farmers market to be political, as a sort of platform for political speech,” Councilmember Erik Altmann said. “I think that would be a loss for the farmers market."
According to Anderson, Judge Paul Maloney stated that Tennes has a strong likelihood of success on the claim that the city has "retaliated against him because of his speech and exercise of religious belief." As the court process continues, the city will not be appealing the decision, though it was considered. Anderson said that this is normal and that cities typically just move forward.
“I think there is a cost to not appealing," Altmann said. “We can afford to defend the case, which we will do, but it doesn't make sense given the city's financial circumstance to spend money on the appeal of the preliminary trial.”
The City of East Lansing released a statement expressing its disappointment on Sept. 15.
"In the meantime, the city will comply with the ruling of the Court and urges those who may also be disappointed in the ruling to respect the Court’s decision," the statement read.
Tennes said he has been receiving mostly positive responses to the decision.
"Obviously, there’s been some very negative ones, including some death threats that we’ve received online," Tennes said. "But the most amazing responses we’ve seen are the folks that have been very thoughtful and respectful in communicating to us that they may not believe what we believe, which is fine, but they respect our right to believe and speak freely about these beliefs without the fear of government punishment."
Tennes plans on being at the East Lansing Farmer's Market every Sunday for the rest of this season, as well as in the coming years.
“Forty-six years ago, my parents moved from the area of East Lansing out here to the farm and for the last seven years we really enjoyed being able to reconnect with our customers in East Lansing," Tennes said. "So yes, we intend to return to the East Lansing Farmer’s Market and continue the relationships we’ve had over several decades serving all customers of all backgrounds. ... We returned yesterday, we plan on going back next week, and keep going."