Federal Judge Rules City Can't Ban Christian Farmer Because of Biblical Beliefs
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A federal district court has ruled that a Christian farmer in Michigan is free to participate in his local farmer's market after city officials banned him from the event because of his biblical viewpoint on marriage.
U.S. District Judge Paul L. Maloney ruled Monday that East Lansing officials cannot lawfully bar Country Mill Farms from its annual farmer's market due to owner Stephen Tennes' refusal to host same-sex weddings on the farm's property.
"The City has not established that the decision to deny CMF a vendor license is narrowly tailored to meet a compelling government interest," wrote Maloney.
He continued, "a policy that forces a person to choose between observing [their] religious beliefs and receiving a generally available government benefit for which [they are] otherwise qualified burdens [their] free exercise rights. The reason is simple: denying a person an equal share of the rights, benefits, and privileges enjoyed by other citizens because of [their] faith discourages religious activity."
As CBN News reported, Steve and Bridget Tennes operate their orchard in Charlotte, Michigan and they host weddings on their farm.
The Christian family used to set up a booth at the East Lansing Farmer's Market to sell their produce, but in 2017 officials decided to punish them after the family posted on Facebook that they believe marriage is between a man and a woman and would not host LGBTQ weddings on their property.
The family fought the city's decision and a federal judge issued a preliminary order forcing the city to allow the Tennes family to participate in the farmers market. The judge also said the city most likely violated their religious and free speech rights.
"Our family farm here is very personal to us," Steve Tennes said. "One of the things we really enjoy about our family farm here is [that] we are able to raise our five children here at the farm in accordance with our faith."
He added, "This isn't just about our ability to sell at the farmer's market. It's really about every American's right to make a living and not have to worry about being punished by the government."
However, the City of East Lansing barred Tennes from participating after that year with Mayor Mark Meadows stating that ruling only covered the 2017 market season.
He contended that the city opposed the Tennes' "corporate decision-making," not their religious beliefs.
"This doesn't have anything to do with Mr. Tennes," Meadows said. "This has to do with the business."
But city officials asserted that the Tennes' expression conflicted with East Lansing's marriage views and its new market policy.
The policy requires vendors to agree to comply with the city's "Human Relations Ordinance and its public policy against discrimination while at the market and as a general business practice."
According to the policy, it's illegal for anyone to "make a statement which indicates that an individual's patronage or presence at a place of public accommodation is unwelcome or unacceptable because of sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression..." among other designated classes.
The family brought their case before a federal court to obtain a permanent ruling.
The non-profit legal group, Alliance Defending Freedom, represented the Tennes family.
ADF Senior Counsel Kate Anderson, who argued the case on behalf of the farm before the court in July 2021, applauded the latest ruling in a statement Tuesday.
"The district court's decision rightly protects Steve's freedom to operate his business according to his convictions. Country Mill has continued to participate in the farmer's market without issue during this litigation," she wrote.
"Tennes and Country Mill Farms are grateful for the court's decision protecting religious liberty," Anderson continued. "At the same time, they are eager to mend fences with current city officials and get back to doing what Country Mill does best—as expressed in its mission statement: 'glorifying God by facilitating family fun on the farm and feeding families.'"
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