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Country Mill Farms v. City of East Lansing

Description:  City of East Lansing officials exiled Steve Tennes and his popular family business, Country Mill Farms, after he posted on Facebook that he follows the Catholic Church’s teachings regarding marriage when hosting weddings at his family farm. At issue is an unconstitutional policy that city officials adopted specifically to shut out Tennes and Country Mill Farms purely for that reason. The city did this even though Tennes, his family, and the orchard are in Charlotte, 22 miles from East Lansing, well outside the city’s boundaries and beyond its jurisdiction.

Friday, Dec 15, 2023

KALAMAZOO, Mich. – To settle a lawsuit brought by a Catholic farmer, the city of East Lansing has agreed to protect Country Mill Farms’ constitutional right to operate according to its religious beliefs and also agreed to pay $825,000 ($41,199 in damages and $783,801 in attorneys’ fees).

A federal district court ruled in August that Country Mill Farms owner Steve Tennes is free to continue participating in the East Lansing farmer’s market. Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing Tennes and his farm sued the city in 2017 after officials excluded Tennes from the market because of his religious beliefs.

“Steve and his family-run farm happily serve all customers as a valued vendor at East Lansing’s farmer’s market. The court was right to agree that the First Amendment protects Steve, like every other small business owner, to operate his business according to his faith and convictions,” said ADF Senior Counsel Kate Anderson. “We’re pleased to favorably settle this lawsuit on behalf of Steve so he and his family can continue doing what Country Mill does best, as expressed in its mission statement: ‘glorifying God by facilitating family fun on the farm and feeding families.’”

After Tennes posted on Facebook that he follows the Catholic Church’s teachings about marriage, including when he participates in weddings at his family’s farm, city officials enacted a new market policy to prohibit Tennes and Country Mill Farms from participating in the city’s farmer’s market. The city used a discretionary system of individual assessments to ban only Tennes from market participation, even though Tennes and his family farm have always served everyone at the farmer’s market and have never received any complaints. Additionally, their farm is in Charlotte, 22 miles from East Lansing, well outside the city’s boundaries and jurisdiction.

As part of the settlement agreement, the city of East Lansing agreed that Tennes is free to continue running his business in accord with his religious beliefs about marriage without jeopardizing his ability to participate in the city’s farmer’s market.

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, parental rights, and the sanctity of life.

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ABOUT Kate Anderson

Kate Anderson serves as senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, where she is the director of the Center for Parental Rights. In this role, she leads the team working to ensure schools respect the role of parents in directing the upbringing, education, and health care of their children. In 2023, Anderson, together with allied attorneys, successfully defended parents in Wisconsin, and her team is actively engaged in many other states and courts protecting the fundamental rights of parents. Anderson's work at ADF began in 2015, focusing on protecting the conscience rights of individuals being unjustly compelled to forfeit their beliefs under threat of government retaliation, heavy fines, or other punishment. Prior to joining ADF, Anderson was an associate attorney with Ellis, Li & McKinstry, PLLC, in Seattle, where she litigated both civil and criminal cases. She obtained her law degree magna cum laude in 2009 from Gonzaga University School of Law, where she served on the Gonzaga Law Review . She is admitted to the state bars of Arizona and Washington, the U.S. Supreme Court, and several federal district and appellate courts.