Update to the story below — TAB staff — On Sept. 15 federal district judge Paul Maloney issued a preliminary injunction allowing Country Mill Farms to return to the farmers market through the current season that ends in October. In his ruling Maloney wrote that the Tennes family was likely “to prevail on the merits of their claims for speech retaliation and for free exercise of religion.”
By Emilie Kao and Laura Cermak
Religion News Service
Small businesses — those with fewer than 50 workers — already pay, on average, more than $11,000 per employee per year because of federal regulations. Now city officials in East Lansing, Michigan, are adding a new burden: Anyone wishing to do business in their town must toe the (city) line on politically correct beliefs.
Specifically they’ve made compliance with their views on gay “marriage” a new “cost of doing business.”
City officials saw a Facebook exchange in which Steve Tennes said his family couldn’t host same-sex weddings on their farm, Country Mill, because such ceremonies are inconsistent with the family’s deeply held beliefs about marriage. The officials promptly banned Country Mill from the city’s farmers market, where Tennes had been selling his fresh produce since 2010.
Tennes and his wife, Bridget, have never discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation. They have sold their produce to — and hired — people who identify as LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender). They didn’t treat anyone differently because of their sexual orientation, but they believe marriage is between one man and one woman and don’t want to violate their consciences.
Nor should they have to. When the Supreme Court redefined marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the traditional view of marriage was based on “decent and honorable premises.” He added that no one should be disparaged for holding those beliefs. But the city of East Lansing has done exactly that, misusing Obergefell to justify punishing the Tennes family for their beliefs.
The Supreme Court’s decision was about the obligations of state governments. It didn’t give governments carte blanche to force farmers, bakers, florists and photographers to host or celebrate same-sex weddings.
What we see in East Lansing is an overly aggressive local government targeting a small business because of a difference of opinion. The clear evidence of this is the lack of a complaint from any customer alleging any actual harm by Country Mill, because there was none.
Which is why the Tennes family recently went to court over its lawsuit against East Lansing.
Steve and Bridget Tennes both served in the U.S. military. When they left to start running a farm, they never expected the government they served would punish them for their religious beliefs.
By all accounts, Country Mill had been a model vendor at the East Lansing market, graciously serving all customers. But when officials saw the Facebook post, they discouraged Country Mill from coming to the market, hinting there might be protests.
The couple wasn’t deterred so the city then drafted a policy to exclude Country Mill from the market. The policy treats sexual orientation as a protected class, something federal civil rights law does not do.
The policy also applies not just to what happens at the farmers market, but to how business owners operate anywhere in the state. East Lansing is overreaching beyond its own jurisdiction — violating Michigan’s “Home Rule City Act” to punish Country Mill, which is 22 miles outside of East Lansing.
The new cost of doing business is high. “It’s a major financial burden to be shut out and excluded from the farmers market,” Steve Tennes said.
Kate Anderson, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom who represents the family, said the city’s message is clear: “We can hurt your livelihood if you don’t ascribe to a belief we agree with.”
East Lansing city officials never enforced their policy against any other vendor. The city’s use of the market as a weapon to force the Tennes family to disavow their beliefs violates their freedom of religion and expression.
When governments use economic weapons to silence individuals for their beliefs, all Americans should pay attention.
If a government can punish one family-owned business for its beliefs, what power restrains it from punishing other businesses for other beliefs? If a government can ban a farm from selling at one market, what’s to stop it from banning other businesses from selling in other marketplaces?
Not backing down
East Lansing suggests it may allow Country Mill to return if the Tennes family denies its beliefs and conforms to the city’s ideas of marriage. But Steve and Bridget aren’t backing down.
And they shouldn’t have to choose between their faith and their livelihood. East Lansing’s policy violates the freedom of Americans to run their businesses according to their consciences.
No American should be coerced by local, state or federal government into abandoning his or her religious or moral beliefs. Violation of individual conscience should never be the price of doing business.
Editor’s Note — Emilie Kao is director of the Heritage Foundation’s DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society. Laura Cermak is a member of the foundation’s Young Leaders Program.