Like many business people today, Steve and Bridget Tennes rely on multiple streams of income to pay the bills. They run an orchard called Country Mill Farms in Charlotte, Mich., that doubles as a wedding venue. When the city of East Lansing learned the Tenneses only host heterosexual weddings, it banned them from the town’s farmers market.
Last Wednesday, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed suit on behalf of the Tennes family. ADF senior counsel Jeremy Tedesco said the city found out about the family’s religious beliefs in August.
Steve Tennes was selling organic corn, apples, blueberries, and pumpkins at the farmers market, as he had for seven years. Tennes, a devout Catholic, believes in the Biblical view of marriage—one man, one woman. That belief prompted him to decline celebrating same sex weddings on his property.
The city pressured Tennes not to come back to the market, citing concerns over protests and disruptions. He kept going, and no disruptions or protests disturbed the market’s peace.
When pressuring Tennes didn’t work, the city adopted a new policy and began enforcing it this year. The policy requires farmers market vendors to comply with the city’s “Human Relations Ordinance and its public policy against discrimination … while at the market and as a general business practice.”
It also makes it illegal for vendors to make statements about who they will or won’t serve because of their “sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression.”
“They’re reaching outside of their own jurisdictional limits to enforce their policy against people who are doing completely legal activities on their own property,” Tedesco said. “When somebody is targeting you so clearly to exclude you from this kind of a market, this kind of a forum, there’s really no way to resolve it short of litigation.”
The Tenneses live 22 miles outside East Lansing. In a written response to questions from WORLD, East Lansing officials pointed to advertisements of the family’s business that explicitly limit weddings on their property to heterosexual unions. Their property isn’t in East Lansing, but city officials said their business practice extends beyond their borders.
“The Tenneses’ have every legal right to operate their farm according to their religious beliefs,” Tedesco said. “They’re not violating any single law that applies to their farm.”
Listen to “Legal Docket” on the June 5, 2017, edition of The World and Everything in It.