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Catholic farmer sues East Lansing over anti-discrimination policy

May 31, 2017

Credit steve carmody / Michigan Radio

The city of East Lansing is being sued by a farmer who claims his religious views are being discriminated against.

Organic apple grower Steve Tennes has been a fixture at the East Lansing farmers market for the past six years. But his Country Mill Farms won’t be there this year.  

Tennes says, since he posted on Facebook last year that his Charlotte farm would not host same sex weddings because of his family’s Catholic beliefs, East Lansing officials have tried to push him out of the farmers market.

The city introduced a change to the city’s farmers market vendor agreement this year requiring vendors to agree to and comply with East Lansing’s Human Relations Ordinance. Among other things, the ordinance bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.

“Being a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim farmer, should not disqualify you from selling your produce at the local farmers market," says Steve Tennes, who's suing the city of East Lansing over its vendor policy
Credit steve carmody / Michigan Radio

But Tennes says he’s the one being discriminated against.

“True tolerance is a two way street,” Tennes told reporters, “The government should not eradicate people of faith from the marketplace.”

Tennes’ attorney declines to say how much money Country Mill farm is losing by not being at the East Lansing farmers market. The farm does sell its produce and other products at other mid-Michigan farmers markets. 

The lawsuit filed today in federal court in the Western District of Michigan is seeking damages and reversal of a city policy requiring farmers market vendors agree to East Lansing’s Human Relations Ordinance.

“The government should never force its citizens to choose between following their deepest convictions and earning a living,” says attorney Kate Anderson, with the Alliance Defending Freedom. The ADF is a conservative, Christian organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center has described as being “virulently anti-gay.”

Following the filing of the lawsuit in Grand Rapids, the City of East Lansing issued a written statement:

“The Country Mill has been excluded from the East Lansing Farmer’s Market because the East Lansing Farmer’s Market policy requires that all vendors comply with the City’s Civil Rights ordinances while at
the market and as a general business practice. Contrary to this policy and the constitutionally protected rights of all couples, The Country Mill has advertised that their business practice is to prohibit same-sex
couples from holding weddings at their orchard in Charlotte, MI. Their business practices violate the City of East Lansing’s long-standing ordinance that protects sexual orientation as well as the Supreme
Court’s ruling that grants the right for same-sex couples to be married.”

This could be a long legal battle. The group representing the Country Mill Farms and the Tennes family have been involved in several cases that have reached the U.S. Supreme Court.