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Michigan farmer to court: Stop city's religious hostility, let me sell food to everyone

Farmer, ADF attorneys available Thursday, Friday to discuss hearing in lawsuit challenging East Lansing ordinance

Wednesday, Apr 10, 2019

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WHO:  Country Mill Farms owner Steve Tennes, Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys

WHAT:  Available for media interviews regarding summary judgment hearing in Country Mill Farms v. City of East Lansing

WHEN:  Country Mill Farms (4/11): Tennes and an ADF attorney available 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. EDT Thursday by appointment only by calling (480) 417-3975. Hearing (4/12): ADF attorneys available immediately following hearing, which begins at 1:30 p.m. EDT Friday

WHERE:  Country Mill Farms (4/11): 4648 Otto Rd., Charlotte. Hearing (4/12): U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, Southern Division, 410 W. Michigan Ave., Room 174, Kalamazoo.

KALAMAZOO, Mich. – Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys will be in federal court Friday requesting a permanent order that would require the city of East Lansing to allow a farmer to participate in the city’s farmer’s market as he has for years. City officials exiled Steve Tennes and his popular business, Country Mill Farms in Charlotte, after he posted on Facebook that he follows the Catholic Church’s teachings regarding marriage when hosting weddings at his family farm. ADF attorneys argue that city officials targeted Tennes for his beliefs, which one city council member called “ridiculous, horrible, [and] hateful,” and then went to great lengths to expel him from the market until the court issued a preliminary order in 2017 that allowed him to return temporarily.

Members of the media may schedule interviews with Tennes and ADF Senior Counsel and Vice President of Appellate Advocacy John Bursch, former solicitor general of Michigan, by calling (480) 417-3975. Those interviews will take place between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. EDT Thursday at Country Mill Farms in Charlotte. Bursch and ADF Senior Counsel Kate Anderson will also be available Friday immediately following Anderson’s argument on behalf of Country Mill Farms at the court hearing in the case, Country Mill Farms v. City of East Lansing, which begins at 1:30 p.m. EDT in Kalamazoo.

“All Americans should be free to live and speak according to their deeply held religious beliefs without fear of government punishment,” said Anderson. “Yet East Lansing officials changed their market policy to shut out Steve Tennes because they don’t like his Catholic beliefs regarding marriage. That unconstitutional discrimination is what led to the court’s temporary order in favor of Steve in 2017.”

“Courts have rightfully and repeatedly rejected this type of religious hostility, as recently as the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case,” added Bursch. “That is why we are asking the district court to issue an order that permanently prevents East Lansing from unconstitutionally targeting Steve on the basis of his beliefs. The city’s response to Steve’s beliefs reeks of anti-religious discrimination.”

At issue is an unconstitutional policy that city officials adopted specifically to shut out Tennes and Country Mills Farms, his family’s fruit orchard, purely because he posted on Facebook his belief in biblical marriage. 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. After seeing Tennes’ Facebook post from August 2016, city officials took several actions to drive him out of the market he has served since 2010.

In a public debate, a city council member said Tennes’ Catholic beliefs are “ridiculous, horrible, [and] hateful things.” In addition, the mayor of East Lansing criticized Tennes for translating his “Catholic view on marriage” into a business practice, suggesting that Tennes was only doing it for the money. Other city officials said that his marriage beliefs were “the same” as those defending post-slavery racism in the Jim Crow South. The city’s public position was that it would expel Country Mill Farms until it successfully changed the Catholic beliefs of Tennes and his family.
Tennes’ religious beliefs motivate him to donate thousands of pounds of apples to local food banks, to share and live out his faith before customers and visitors, and to fight government bureaucrats for the right to build housing for migrant workers.

“Those same beliefs compel Tennes and his employees to treat every single customer with dignity and respect,” Bursch explained. “The city’s condemnation of that same faith—not to mention the city’s attempts to change Steve’s beliefs regarding marriage—violate the U.S. Constitution, the most basic notions of religious freedom, and simple common decency.”

ADF-allied attorneys James Wierenga and Jeshua Lauka with the Grand Rapids law firm of David & Wierenga PC are serving as local counsel in the case.
  • One-page summary: Country Mill Farms v. City of East Lansing
  • Pronunciation guide: 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.
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