Skip to main content

ADF to President Trump: Religious intolerance at USDA latest example of need for religious freedom order

Agency threatens to shut down family-run Michigan meatpacking facility over religious literature on breakroom table

Thursday, Feb 16, 2017

WASHINGTON – Alliance Defending Freedom President, CEO, and General Counsel Michael Farris sent a letter Wednesday to President Donald Trump that asks him to sign the proposed religious freedom executive order and reverse a U.S. Department of Agriculture order that prohibits a family-owned Michigan meatpacking facility from including religious literature concerning marriage on a breakroom table.

Under a policy issued by the Obama administration’s agriculture secretary, a USDA official threatened to remove all USDA inspectors if West Michigan Beef Company owner Donald Vander Boon didn’t permanently refrain from placing in the company’s breakroom religious literature supporting marriage between one man and one woman that the department deemed “offensive.”

As Farris writes in the letter, “Throughout your campaign, you emphasized that preserving religious liberty would be a ‘first priority’ of your Administration. After enduring 8 years of the federal government bullying and punishing good Americans for peacefully living out their faith, your promise motivated many people of faith to cast their vote for you and to trust you to protect religious freedom…. Today, we write on behalf of our clients, Donald and Ellen Vander Boon, who own West Michigan Beef Company, LLC, a meatpacking facility near Grand Rapids, Michigan. This family-owned business employs 45 hard-working Americans and helps put food on the table for many families across the Midwest…. Unfortunately, the Vander Boons are at risk of having their plant shut down and their employees left jobless because of the USDA’s unfair targeting of the Vander Boons for their religious beliefs.”

“Americans shouldn’t be threatened with the loss of their livelihoods simply because they live and speak peacefully according to their beliefs,” added ADF Senior Counsel Jeremy Tedesco. “The First Amendment, federal law, and Supreme Court precedent all forbid discrimination based on a person’s viewpoint. It’s especially ridiculous to threaten to shut down an entire facility—harming the jobs of all of the hard workers employed there—in service of a blatantly unconstitutional, politically correct demand like this. This sort of government threat against people of faith demonstrates the reason why President Trump should sign an executive order protecting religious liberty.”

After Vander Boon placed a faith-based article concerning marriage on his facility’s breakroom table in 2015, Dr. Ryan Lundquist, USDA’s public health veterinarian and the inspector in charge on-site at West Michigan Beef, read the article, removed it, and reported it to USDA Frontline Supervisor Robert Becker. They held a meeting with Vander Boon, at which Becker threatened three times to remove USDA inspectors if Vander Boon didn’t agree to refrain from placing the article in the breakroom. Becker explained that the ultimatum was based on expanded agency rules against offensive and harassing speech.

On July 1, 2015, then Secretary of Agriculture Thomas J. Vilsack issued an “Anti-Harassment Policy Statement” that prohibits written or oral communications that USDA officials consider “disrespectful” or “insult[ing]” on the basis of sexual orientation. The policy states that managers and supervisors “must take immediate and appropriate corrective action to enforce this policy” when they become aware of incidents involving “harassment.” USDA Deputy District Manager Karnail S. Mudahar confirmed to Vander Boon that the censorship of his religious speech was pursuant to policy.

Given the grave threat of the federal government shutting down his business, Vander Boon did not return the article to the breakroom. Instead, he filed a complaint regarding the denial of his rights with the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. To date, he has not received any response other than two letters in September 2015 informing him that his complaint was received and forwarded to the director of the agency’s Civil Rights Division. Multiple attempts by ADF-allied attorney James Wierenga of Grand Rapids to obtain further information from USDA officials have also failed.

As Farris notes in the ADF letter to Trump, “18 months have passed, and Don has not received any relief from this unjust and unlawful targeting of his religious expression by the federal government. He remains under a constant threat of closure, nervous about saying or doing something that might result in the USDA censoring his religious beliefs, silencing his speech, and forcing Ellen and him to close down their only source of income that benefits their family, their 45 employees, and the broader community. We therefore ask that you direct the Department of Agriculture to rescind its unlawful harassment policy and lift the restriction on Don’s speech.”

“Don’s situation also highlights how much similar people who own small, family-owned businesses would directly benefit from the religious freedom executive order you are considering,” Farris adds. “Your signing that order will ensure that hard-working Americans, along with non-profits and social service organizations, will not have to fear government punishment or bullying simply for peacefully living out their faith. On behalf of Don and Ellen, we ask you to please sign the religious freedom executive order.”
  • Pronunciation guide: Tedesco (Tuh-DESS’-koh), Wierenga (Weer-ENG-uh)

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
# # #