Now the Tenneses join a growing list of florists, photographers, filmmakers, and cake bakers who have lost a portion of their livelihood for upholding a Biblical definition of marriage. Last May, Alliance Defending Freedom filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the Tenneses, stating their religious views have no bearing on their involvement in the market and the city violated their constitutional rights.
The case may determine whether the government can exclude business owners based on their religious beliefs from public marketplace events. Tennes admits the time he spends on the lawsuit takes away from his family and farm, and he and his family have received written death threats.
But Steve and Bridget Tennes are both military veterans raised by Midwestern farmers, and they’re willing to fight in court rather than give up religious freedom for themselves and their children. He says, “We have five kids who may want to sell produce at the markets someday. … It would never occur to me that we have to keep quiet about what we believe to avoid government punishment.”
The five children already contribute to the Country Mill’s mission of “family fun on the farm.” Two of the sons say their favorite tasks are loading the “pumpkin pitch,” handing out doughnut samples, and collecting deer apples for local hunters. One son is helping engineer a new apple cannon. The oldest daughter boasts the record as fastest cashier. Throughout the year the farm hosts educational field trips for school districts and colleges, kids camps, and “u-pick” events that benefit local food banks.
The Tenneses also employ more than 70 seasonal workers, including many local teens and at least one LGBT individual. They host an employee pizza night on Sundays. Steve Tennes says Country Mill’s reputation and business practices are directly linked to their faith: “It is central to who we are. ... It tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves.” He serves on numerous boards for his Catholic church and school, veterans groups, and local and state agricultural organizations.
Alliance Defending Freedom legal counsel Kate Anderson is seeking a preliminary injunction granting Country Mill Farms a spot at East Lansing’s market. Tennes says, “Hopefully it’ll come in time for peach harvest.”