City Sued by Farmers’ Market Vendor Over Alleged First Amendment Violation

Thursday, June 1, 2017, 9:28 am
By: 
Alice Dreger and Ann Nichols

Photo: Apples sold at the Country Mill East Lansing Farmer's Market booth last fall.

Stephen Tennes and his business, Country Mill Farms, LLC (doing business as “The Country Mill”) have filed a lawsuit against the City of East Lansing alleging that the City has excluded Country Mill from the East Lansing’s Farmer’s Market “solely because the City dislikes the farmer’s profession of his religious beliefs about marriage on Facebook.”

The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a group founded by Christian leaders who say they have united “in order to defend religious freedom before it [is] too late,” is advocating for Tennes and Country Mill in this case.

According to the ADF, “As Catholics, the Tennes family believes that marriage is a sacred union between one man and one woman. Last August, the family communicated these beliefs on their Country Mill Facebook page. But when East Lansing officials saw the statement, the city began taking steps to expel Country Mill Farms from the East Lansing Farmer’s Market.”

Yesterday the City of East Lansing responded to the lawsuit’s announcement by saying that, “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,” Michigan.

The City further stated in yesterday’s formal response that Country Mill's “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 controversy began brewing last year when various residents of East Lansing called for boycotting or protesting Country Mill at the East Lansing market because of the owners’ public stance on same-sex marriage. Ultimately no formal boycott or protest emerged, but in response to concerns, the City moved to amend its vendor policies to specifically state that vendors must comply with the City’s Civil Rights ordinances and policies “while at the [East Lansing Farmer’s Market] and as a general business practice.”

According to the complaint filed yesterday by Tennes and Country Mill in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, after Tennes stated his religious beliefs about marriage on Facebook last summer, “City officials pressured Country Mill to leave the Market, telling the Tennes family that because of their statement of their religious beliefs (1) the City did not want them at the Market that coming Sunday and (2) people would protest and disrupt the Market if Country Mill continued to participate in it.”

The complaint further alleges that, “When Country Mill decided to attend the remaining two months of the Farmer’s Market season, which they did without any protests or disruptions, East Lansing stopped asking Country Mill to leave and started work to ban Country Mill by City Policy.”

In response to questions, East Lansing City Attorney Tom Yeadon told ELi yesterday afternoon, “the City did revise its policy after receiving complaints about this particular vendor's business practices.”

The City does not have an in-house attorney and generally employs Yeadon for its legal work, paying his firm on a per-hour basis. Yeadon says he expects his office to be defending the City in this lawsuit.

At issue in the lawsuit is the question of whether the City can legally exclude Country Mill from East Lansing’s Farmer’s Market because of what their business practices in Charlotte. The plaintiffs are arguing in this case that Michigan’s Home Rule City Act “prohibits such extra-jurisdictional enforcement of City laws.”

The plaintiffs say they “fully comply” with the City’s Civil Rights Ordinance “when operating in East Lansing and at the Farmer’s Market, gladly selling produce to all comers at the Market.” They are arguing in the suit that East Lansing has violated their rights to religious freedom and free speech.

The East Lansing Farmer’s Market opens for its ninth annual season this Sunday, June 4. Country Mill will not be there for the first time since 2010, because its most recent application to sell at the Market has been refused by the City. The suit seeks to have the Court declare the City’s policy in this case “unlawful and unconstitutional, and to allow Country Mill to again serve all customers at the East Lansing Farmer’s Market.”