Like a good farmer, Steve Tennes was happy to get back to selling the fruits of his labor Sunday at the East Lansing farmers market.
He’s missed more than three months so far, and will get in on only the last six weeks of the seasonal market. That’s a hit to his family’s income, and he’s trying to make up for lost time.
“As a farmer, I have a short window of opportunity in our harvest season,” Tennes says. “We’ve been eager to sell.”
For much of this year, Tennes, owner of the Country Mill orchard in Charlotte, has been fighting the city over whether he can sell at the city-run farmers market — something he’d done every year previously since 2010.
Tennes’ error was writing about his beliefs on marriage in a Facebook post last year. As Catholics, he and his family believe marriage is between a man and woman, and he wanted to explain (thoughtfully) why he wouldn’t host same-sex weddings on his farm.
East Lansing officials caught wind of this post and didn’t invite Tennes back to the farmers market this year. And they denied his application, specifically stating his post and religious beliefs about marriage. That went against the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance, officials claimed, and they even broadened its definition to include all of a business’ practices — thereby excluding Country Mill, even though it’s 22 miles outside East Lansing’s limits.
Tennes sued the city in May. A federal judge granted the family a preliminary injunction Friday to start selling at the farmers market as the case progresses — just two days after hearing initial arguments.
“Because the Court finds that Tennes and Country Mill have a substantial likelihood of success on at least one of their claims brought under the First Amendment, the Court will grant the motion for a preliminary injunction,” wrote Judge Paul Maloney.
Kate Anderson, an attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom who is representing Tennes, was pleased with the decision, and thinks it bodes well for the case’s future, given Maloney’s attention to the First Amendment issues at stake: both freedom of speech and freedom to express religious beliefs.
To the city’s credit, Tennes didn’t have any problem working with the farmers market and getting his space arranged, even on short notice.
“The city emailed right away to make arrangements for the booth,” Anderson says.
Of course, East Lansing leaders aren’t pleased, and they aren’t giving up.
“The City is disappointed in the Court’s ruling,” according to a statement. “The City believes that the Court relied on the Plaintiff’s complaint and disregarded the contrary facts that were set forth in the Defendant’s answer and reply to the Plaintiff’s motion. At the time of the Court’s ruling, the Court also had the benefit of the facts established by the City’s Motion to Dismiss. The City will be considering the seeking of a stay and an appeal of the ruling.”
Tennes says things went fine on Sunday and that he was “thrilled” with the judge’s quick decision and the ability to return to the market. Overall, the public was happy to see Country Mill back in the mix. While there were some protesters Sunday, Tennes says the people who wanted to buy from him and offer encouragement were able to get through.
“We really feel support,” Tennes says.
And the support isn’t limited to Michigan. Tennes has received positive feedback from around the country — including from people who don’t agree with his beliefs but recognize his fundamental right to have them without fear of retribution from the government.
“The last thing we need is for the government to target us for what we believe,” Tennes says.