The Country Mill, a favored local orchard, winery, and wedding venue in the Eaton County area, has been a hot topic in conversations of religious freedom, business, and LGBTQ discrimination for the last several months. When Steve Tennes, owner of the Country Mill, announced the reopening of the wedding venue side of the business with the exception of same-sex marriages, the City of East Lansing did not allow the favored vendor a spot at its farmers market.
The Tenneses reluctantly decided to sue the City of East Lansing on the grounds of religious discrimination. A motion was filed to allow the Country Mill a place at the East Lansing farmers market while the case continues. Wednesday, Sept. 13 both sides made their arguments before federal district judge, Paul Maloney, and ultimately he sided with the Country Mill, thus allowing the business to return to the farmers market while the case continues. Judge Maloney released a written decision the following Friday, and the Country Mill was back at the East Lansing farmers market Sunday, Sept. 17.
“We’re extremely happy the judge recognized the short window of harvest. We’ve already missed three and a half months of income at the largest farmers market we attend,” said Steve.
The return to the East Lansing farmers market was met with both support and protest. Tennes noted the number of out-of-town buyers who drove great lengths to express their support for the Country Mill, as well as the several protestors who aimed to discourage people from buying from “bigoted” business owners. Even with the protestors and several months of threats and discouragement, the Tenneses are choosing to be thankful for ample support.
According to Steve, they’ve even received encouragement from people who disagree with their beliefs and policies.
“There are Americans who believe in freedom of religion and the right to act how you want in your own home without fear of government punishment,” said Steve.
Alliance Defending Freedom represents the Country Mill in the lawsuit against East Lansing. In the case of the Tenneses they maintain that denying the Country Mill a license for the East Lansing farmers market is an overreach of and distortion of anti-discrimination laws.
“We’re seeing cities and states apply anti-discrimination laws in an odd way,” said Kate Anderson, the Tenneses’ attorney from ADF. “All Steve did was state his beliefs, and that has nothing to do with selling apples at the market.”
In a statement published Sept. 19 in the Detroit Free Press, mayor of East Lansing, Mark Meadows, noted the disappointment with the federal court decision. He believes the City’s “intentions in this case have been mischaracterized by Country Mill as well as in some coverage of this suit.”
Meadows went on to write that the city does not have a problem with the Tenneses’ religious beliefs, but with their business policy of not allowing LGBTQ weddings at their venue.
“Country Mill lost its spot at the Farmer’s Market because of its business practices. Same-sex couples have a right to be married. Country Mill offers a public accommodation that discriminates against same-sex couples and has turned same-sex couples away when they have sought out the public marriage venue.
“It has been asserted that Country Mill had no option but to sue the City. In fact, it did have another option. It could have stopped discriminating against same-sex couples,” wrote Meadows.
The decision from the federal court stands for the remainder of the farmers market season. According to Anderson this was only the first step in the lawsuit. Whether the Tenneses win the case remains to be seen.