A local Catholic farming family has won a seven-year legal battle against the City of East Lansing after being unfairly barred from participating in a farmers market for publicly articulating and upholding the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family.
Yesterday, a federal district court found that the city’s refusal to allow farmer Stephen Tennes of Country Mill Farms near Charlotte to sell produce at their farmers market violated Mr. Tennes’ constitutional rights under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.
“Stephen Tennes and Country Mill Farms are to be congratulated for their courageous defense of marriage and their religious beliefs in the face of discrimination from the City of East Lansing,” said Will Bloomfield, General Counsel for Catholic Diocese of Lansing, August 22.
“Sadly, this case is just the latest example of governments unconstitutionally using so-called non-discrimination laws to discriminate against religious persons, businesses, and nonprofits. Thankfully, firms like Alliance Defending Freedom, who represented Mr. Tennes, stand ready to defend constitutionally-protected religious freedom.”
Steve and Bridget Tennes are parishioners at Saint Mary in Charlotte. After serving their country in the military, the couple decided to move back to Michigan to take over operation of his family’s farm where they are now raising their seven children.
It was in August 2016 that East Lansing’s illegal persecution of the Tennes family began. Steve Tennes was asked on the Country Mill Farms Facebook page whether he would use his farm to host a same-sex wedding. He replied that, though he happily serves everyone, he would decline to host a same-sex ceremony because he believes that marriage is between one man and one woman and, hence, operates his business accordingly.
Rooted in faith and reason, the Catholic Church teaches that “only a union of male and female can express the sexual complementarity willed by God for marriage” and that this complementarity “provides the best conditions for raising children: namely, the stable, loving relationship of a mother and father present only in marriage.” (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, November 2003)
Because of his Facebook post, however, the City of East Lansing began pressuring Country Mill Farms to leave its city-run farmers market. The City then created a new policy aimed at keeping the Tennes family out of the farmers market. It then used that same policy to expel Country Mill from the market.
In its ruling of August 21, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, Southern Division, wrote that Tennes and Country Mill Farms “were forced to choose between following their religious beliefs and a government benefit for which they were otherwise qualified.”
Quoting the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, the court explained that forcing such a choice violates Country Mill’s and Tennes’ “free exercise rights. The reason is simple: denying a person an equal share of the rights, benefits, and privileges enjoyed by other citizens because of her faith discourages religious activity.”
“We’re very grateful for all the prayers and support we’ve received,” said Steve Tennes in the wake of the decision to the Catholic News Agency adding that “this is a victory for all Americans to live out our beliefs.”
“Tennes and Country Mill Farms are grateful for the court’s decision protecting religious liberty,” said Alliance Defending Freedom’s Senior Counsel, Kate Anderson, who represented Mr. Tennes.
“At the same time, they are eager to mend fences with current city officials and get back to doing what Country Mill does best — as expressed in its mission statement: ‘glorifying God by facilitating family fun on the farm and feeding families.’”
• “Between Man and Woman: Questions and Answers About Marriage and Same-Sex Unions” was approved and published by United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, November 2003. To read more: https://www.usccb.org/topics/promotion-defense-marriage/between-man-and-woman-questions-and-answers-about-marriage-and