On May 31 Steve and Bridget Tennes held a press conference at the State Capitol to announce their filing of a lawsuit against the City of East Lansing. The lawsuit comes after a change in application policy for vendors to the East Lansing Farmers Market. The new application reportedly bars vendors who have openly discriminatory policies. In the Tenneses’ case, the application bars the Country Mill from participating in the farmers market based on their wedding venue policy at the orchard, which reserves wedding ceremonies only for heterosexual couples.
To Steve and Bridget this is a direct move against their constitutional rights of freedom of religion. For the last seven years the Country Mill has participated in the East Lansing Farmers Market, and was welcomed back each year as a favored vendor. The city praised the Country Mill for its excellent service, organic produce, and fresh made desserts. According to Steve, the praise stopped immediately after the Tenneses made a Facebook post explaining why they would be no longer be opening the orchard for weddings.
Following the August post Steve started receiving push back from the city about the Country Mill’s participation in the East Lansing Farmers Market. According to Steve they were discouraged from returning based on their religious policy and practice in their business. When in December the Tenneses announced the orchard would continue hosting weddings, between men and women only, the city made the change to the application for the market.
For the first time since 2010, the Country Mill was not invited back to the East Lansing Farmes Market, and when the Tenneses submitted an application it was denied. Steve described it as a coordinated effort to discriminate against his family and his business based on their religious beliefs and practices.
“They made a policy specifically to bar us from being able to return and participate and sell what we grow on our farm,” said Steve.
“What someone says on their Facebook page, or does on their farm, has nothing to do with selling at a market,” said Kate Anderson, the Tenneses’ attorney for the case. “If they (the city) doesn’t like it they can kick you out of the market place.”
Anderson works for Alliance Defending Freedom, a non-profit advocacy group that works specifically on cases of religious freedom. Reaching out to ADF was the Tenneses’ next step after the shock of being barred from the East Lansing Farmers Market. According to Anderson, the next step after the lawsuit is to file a preliminary injunction, which is essentially a quick fix requesting the court to vindicate the Tenneses’ constitutional rights and allow them access to the East Lansing Farmers Market.
For Steve and Bridget Tennes the whole ordeal is a significant disappointment and shock. First of all, the crop for the East Lansing Farmers Market is already in the ground. Preventing the Country Mill from participating in the market is taking a hit on keeping people fed, and the Tenneses providing for their family. Secondly, the City of East Lansing has never received a complaint about the Country Mill, as far as the Tenneses know. They received praise from the city about their kindness and great produce. Thirdly, the Country Mill employs and serves people from the LGBTQ community. Even with their deeply held religious beliefs on marriage, the Tenneses have never refused to serve or employ anyone who is openly gay, lesbian, or trans.
Furthermore, Steve is appalled that such action would be taken for a policy that is set for a business practice well outside of the City of East Lansing’s jurisdiction, and one that has nothing to with the Country Mill’s participation in the farmers market.
“No American should be judged based on beliefs, or what they live out in their own backyard,” said Steve.
The Tenneses believe that their lawsuit is a stance for future businesses, business owners, and other free Americans to have a right to their religious beliefs. So far the case has been represented in a number of media outlets both locally and nationally. The Tenneses are receiving immense support from their community and friends. The County Journal will continue to report on the lawsuit in the weeks and months to come, both in print and on The County Journal’s online opinion blog.