Christian Family Appears In Court After Democrat Officials Ban Them From Local Farmers Market For Refusing To Host Gay Weddings On Their Family Farm

 

Following a bench trial this week, a federal court in Michigan will decide on the case of a farm that was banned from a city-run market in East Lansing because its owners refused to allow gay couples to host weddings on their private farmland.

The years-long legal struggle, which began in 2016, is another illustration of the difficulties federal courts have in balancing religious people’s First Amendment rights and LGBT people’s right not to be discriminated against. It also involves two important Supreme Court decisions within the last four years.

Stephen Tennes and his wife Bridget own Country Mill Farms, and they sold their produce at a farmers market hosted by the city of East Lansing, Michigan for many years. The family also held weddings on their property, although they temporarily ceased doing so in 2016 due to backlash following a Facebook post in which the family stated that they object to same-sex marriages due to their Catholic beliefs.

aIn a December 2016 Facebook post, the family stated that it would start hosting weddings again but would exclude homosexual couples. As a result, Democrat East Lansing officials banned Country Mill Farms from its farmers market under a newly formed policy stating that all vendors must comply with the city’s non-discrimination policy in their general operations.

“If a city can target and punish a farmer for his religious beliefs on marriage, and do the things that they did and get away with that kind of authority over somebody’s religious beliefs… they really have the power to try to impact everybody’s religious beliefs,” Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) Senior Counsel Kate Anderson told Fox News.  Country Mill is being represented in this legal case by ADF.

“That’s something that violates our Constitution and should never happen,” Anderson continued, calling the city’s behavior “egregious.”

“The Country Mill engages in expressing its purpose and beliefs through the operation of its business and it intentionally communicates messages that promote its owners’ beliefs and declines to communicate messages that violate those beliefs,” the farm stated in a December 2016 Facebook post. “For this reason, Country Mill reserves the right to deny a request for services that would require it to communicate, engage in, or host expression that violates the owners’ sincerely held religious beliefs and conscience.”

According to court documents filed by their lawyers, the Tennes family “are ‘intimately involved'” in weddings performed on their property – they participate, oversee the arrangements of the service, and pray for the newlyweds. The family’s lawyers argue that the way the Tennes family runs their business is an extension of their religious life.

According to the farm’s trial brief, “Tennes exercises his Catholic religious beliefs about marriage by hosting and participating in weddings on his farm that bears witness to the truth about the sacred union of marriage.  This religious conduct that flows from his religious belief is constitutionally protected.”

The Democrats that run the city reject this, claiming that Country Mills’ refusal to accommodate same-sex weddings is “commercial conduct” that is not protected by the First Amendment. According to the city, it is “a general business practice that was in violation of the city’s anti-discrimination policy.”

Two key Supreme Court precedents, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia and Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, are also at stake in this case.

“Just like Catholic Social Services in the Supreme Court’s recent Fulton v. City of Philadelphia decision, Steve Tennes seeks to operate his family farm, Country Mill, consistent with the tenets of his Catholic faith but ‘does not seek to impose those beliefs on anyone else,'” Country Mill’s trial brief states. “Yet City officials in East Lansing dislike Tennes’s religious beliefs, speech, and practice. So, the City created a policy to ban Tennes—and only him—from its Farmer’s Market.”

East Lansing, on the other hand, claims that Fulton differs from the current case in one significant way: the Catholic foster agency in that case was a nonprofit with a religious goal. According to the city, Country Mill Farms “is a privately held business enterprise that operates for-profit and, as this Court has stated ‘is not a religious institution.'”

degaThe city further notes that Masterpiece Cakeshop – a case in which a Colorado baker won after being sued for not baking a cake for a gay wedding – was decided on narrow grounds due to the civil rights commission in Colorado’s blatant hatred against Christianity. It said that there was no such animosity in this case.

However, the farm’s attorneys argue that a remark made by East Lansing Mayor Ruth Beier, who was once a member of the city council, is significant.

‘‘We don’t doubt that you’re allowed to be a bigot… You can say it on Facebook, you can say ridiculous, horrible, hateful things,” Beier said, according to court documents. “What we said is if you actually do discriminate in your business by not allowing same-sex couples to marry on your farm, then we don’t want you in East Lansing.”

The city further claims that a decision in favor of Country Mill would “insulate any religiously motivated business practice from anti-discrimination policies.” Country Mill, on the other hand, claims that the city’s approach creates a distinct slippery slope.

“With this unfettered power, City officials can effectively regulate any vendor’s speech and religious beliefs by conditioning participation in the Market on speech and practice the City deems acceptable,” according to the brief.

The decision of Judge Paul Maloney, a George W. Bush appointment, will be significant to all parties involved.

However, there is a good likelihood that Maloney’s decision will not be the final word in the issue, which may end up in the appeals courts or higher, affecting the law throughout much or all of the country. ADF has taken many high-profile cases to the Supreme Court, including multiple important judgments on school choice, freedom of association, and other issues in the previous few years.

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Steeve Strange

Steeve is the CEO & Co-Founder of The Scoop.

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