A Michigan farmer can continue selling his products at a farmers market after a court ruled that city officials in East Lansing, Michigan, violated his religious freedom when they barred his participation in the event because of his Catholic views on marriage. 

“We’re very grateful for all the prayers and support we’ve received,” Country Mill Farms owner Steve Tennes told CNA. “This is a victory for all Americans to live out our beliefs.”

Country Mill Farms was banned from selling fruit from his orchards at the farmers market after Tennes posted on Facebook that he and his business adhere to the Catholic teaching related to same-sex marriage. Because Tennes offers part of his property as a wedding venue but does not rent out the property for same-sex weddings, officials claimed he violated the city’s nondiscrimination policies.

In an Aug. 21 ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Maloney found that the city’s refusal to allow Tennes to participate in the farmers market violated his constitutional rights under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. 

“It’s been seven years now that we’ve been waiting for justice,” Tennes said. 

The ruling states that the city cannot exclude Country Mill Farms from participating in the farmers market based on Tennes’ adherence to his Catholic beliefs, noting that the right to religious freedom does not only apply to religious organizations. 

“The city’s decision to exclude Country Mill Farms from the 2017 East Lansing Farmers Market constituted a burden on [Tennes’] religious beliefs,” the judge ruled. “[Tennes was] forced to choose between following [his] religious beliefs and a government benefit for which [Country Mill Farms was] otherwise qualified.”

Tennes told CNA that he and his wife “always made faith part of our business,” noting that the company’s mission statement mentions glorifying God and the farm hosts an annual “Pick a Peck for People” event, in which customers pick apples for four hours and then donate them to local food banks.

“Our faith has always been a central part of our life,” Tennes said. “Our Catholic faith is something we try to incorporate in everything we do. … It goes far beyond Sunday morning.”

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Kate Anderson, who serves as senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented Tennes in the lawsuit, told CNA that the government should not deny someone’s right to participate in a business opportunity based on his or her religious beliefs. 

“The court ruling was a strong voice for religious freedom,” Anderson said.

A spokesperson for the City of East Lansing told CNA: “The city is reviewing the court’s opinion and will be discussing potential options.”

A seven-year battle for religious freedom

Country Mill Farms has regularly participated in the farmers market since 2010. Tennes noted that he sells his goods to all people and there “has never once been an incident” with anyone claiming discrimination. With the ruling in hand, he plans to “continue selling to people of all backgrounds like we always have.”

Although Tennes had a good relationship with the city for years, he began having problems in August 2016 when city officials took issue with a Facebook post he made that expressed the Catholic teaching on marriage and his reasons for not renting out his property for same-sex weddings. That month, the city asked Tennes to stop attending the farmers market because of these business practices.

When Tennes decided to stop hosting weddings altogether the city allowed him to participate in the farmers market for the remainder of 2016. But in December of that year, he ultimately decided to host weddings again and stand up for his religious freedom to abstain from hosting same-sex weddings. He said: “As parents, we want to provide for our children,” but as veterans, he and his wife also felt the need to “stand up for [the] Constitution.”

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The farmers market subsequently updated its policies to expressly exclude any business that does not comply with the city’s civil rights ordinances. The judge’s ruling noted that Tennes’ decision to continue hosting weddings and his refusal to host same-sex weddings was the city’s “catalyst for the changes.”

When the farmers market refused to allow Country Mill Farms to participate in its event, Tennes filed a lawsuit claiming his religious liberties had been violated. The court granted him temporary relief in September 2017, which allowed him to participate in the farmers market while the matter was being settled in court. 

Tennes noted that he received private support from several businesses, some of whom had also felt pressured into shying away from their religious beliefs. He said he hopes this ruling “can be a ray of hope” for anyone in a similar position and that more people stand up for their religious beliefs and religious freedom.

Going forward, Tennes said he hopes to build a better relationship with current city officials.

Anderson told CNA that there is a trend of “more and more government officials [passing] policies and [enforcing] laws in a way that [targets] people of faith,” particularly related to religious beliefs about gender and sexuality. Yet, she noted that courts have struck down many of these policies, adding: “Those laws are wrong, and they’re being challenged across the country.”

“Every American should be free to live according to their religious beliefs,” Anderson said.