Jacques: Farmer gets boot for expressing his beliefs

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

When East Lansing officials told Steve Tennes he was no longer welcome to sell his apples and doughnuts at the city-run farmers market, he couldn’t believe it.

All it took to earn the government’s wrath was penning a social media post about his faith.

Last December, Tennes, who owns the Country Mill Orchard and Cider Mill in Charlotte, wrote a Facebook post explaining his family’s Catholic views on marriage, and how their deeply held beliefs are why his farm won’t host same-sex weddings.

The city’s response — banning him from its farmers market — reminded the former Marine of the time he spent near the border of North Korea. Tennes could see into the country, and it impacted him how people there live their entire lives in fear of the government.

That’s how he felt when he got the letter from East Lansing.

“I felt it in my gut. This isn’t real,” Tennes recalls.“We have freedom of speech in this country.”

Tennes felt especially betrayed that he was being denied rights he fought to defend while serving his country. His wife Bridget is a former Army nurse.

The East Lansing government isn’t backing down. In fact, it broadened the definition of its civil rights ordinance specifically to ensure the couple wouldn’t have access to the farmers market this season. It applied the ordinance to all of a business’ practices: In this case, what the Tennes do on their personal property 22 miles from East Lansing.

“We require everybody to conform their business practices to the East Lansing ordinance in order to use East Lansing property to sell their goods so that is applied to everybody,” says East Lansing Mayor Mark Meadows.

In the early 1970s, the city became the first in the country to include protections for sexual orientation, says Meadows. The ordinance now also includes gender identity.

These are the same protections some groups have sought to include in Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, but haven’t yet passed a GOP-controlled Legislature. Now there is an effort to convince the Michigan Civil Rights Commission to circumvent the Legislature and extend protections to gay and transgender individuals.

Meadows says the ordinance hasn’t caused problems in the past. “This is the first time it’s been an issue either way,” he says.

Ironically, the city had invited Country Mills to participate in the farmers market every year since 2010, and the orchard was a popular vendor there. Tennes says he wants to sell his produce to everyone — he doesn’t discriminate against anyone who wants a taste of his orchard’s bounty. And he employs LGBT individuals.

“As farmers, we grow food for everyone,” Tennes says. “Our faith forms everything we do.”

Since weddings on the farm are held out his back door, they impact Tennes’ entire family, including his wife and their five children, ages 3-13. The whole family pitches in with weddings.

Tennes decided he didn’t have any other option but to sue the city over its actions. That lawsuit was filed in federal court in May, and a judge next week will hear both his motion for a preliminary injunction and the city’s motion to dismiss.

Alliance Defending Freedom is working on his case, as the firm has experience with similar First Amendment violations.

Kate Anderson, legal counsel with ADF and head counsel on the Tennes case, notes a related case involving a Colorado cake shop owner that is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“It’s a peculiar application (of anti-discrimination laws) to compel creative professionals to violate their conscience and to speak a message against their conscience,” Anderson says.

The city has received “hundreds of postcards” and other correspondence in support of the Tennes’ from across the country, but it hasn’t heard much from local residents, says Meadows.

They should speak up.

As Anderson observes: “If the government can shut down a family farmer just because of the religious views he expresses on Facebook — by denying him a license to do business and serve fresh produce to all people — then no American is free.”

That’s a scary prospect and goes against America’s most fundamental principles.

“No group of Americans should be treated worse than others just because the government doesn’t believe the way they do,” Tennes says. “We’re not just doing this for people who share our beliefs. It’s not just our fight.”

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques