Ask Eli: Prayer Booth and Police at the Farmers’ Market?

Sunday, June 4, 2017, 1:13 pm
Alice Dreger

Above: Julie and Jim Phillips at this weekend's farmers' market.

The East Lansing Farmer’s Market opened for the 2017 season this weekend, and several readers have asked whether the prayer booth there had anything to do with the lawsuit filed against the City by Country Mill. Several people also asked whether there were a number of East Lansing Police Department (ELPD) officers at the market because of concerns about possible protests.

Background: As we reported last Thursday, Stephen Tennes and his business, 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.”

Country Mill hosts weddings at its farm in Charlotte, Michigan, as part of its business. Tennes, who is Roman Catholic, stated on Facebook last year that he is against same-sex marriage for religious reasons.

In response to hearing complaints about the vendors’ posts and stance, the City of East Lansing moved to amend its vendor rules to make it possible under those rules for the City to refuse to allow Country Mill at the East Lansing Farmer’s Market. Country Mill is now suing the City, alleging the City is violating the Tennes’ First Amendment rights. The lawsuit seeks to regain Country Mill’s vendor spot at the market. (Read more.)

The prayer booth yesterday: The booth set up at the market this Sunday offering “free prayer” was run by Ascension Lutheran Church, located at 2780 Haslett Road in East Lansing. The people running the booth were offering free bottled water and craft-making activities for children.

The water bottles were labeled with the church’s name and address and invited people “to experience the joy that comes from knowing Jesus Christ & worship with us any Sunday. Also, K-5 children can join us for Vacation Bible School while parents & other adults have a Bible Study on the evenings of June 26th-29th. Learn about our church and VBS at”

I spoke with Julie Phillips, a member of Ascension Church, who was handing out water at the booth. She tells ELi, “The main reason we are here is just to promote the church and let people know about the church. So we are giving out free water bottles and we have a craft booth for children.”

Phillips said it was the first time the church had been at the East Lansing Farmer’s Market. Asked whether the booth was in response to the lawsuit filed against the City, she said no, it was not.

I asked Nicole Bartell, intern for the East Lansing Farmer’s Market, about whether a church has to pay to be at the market, as product vendors do. Bartell explained that if a booth is going to offer a free children’s activity, it may be allowed at the market without paying a fee. In such cases, an application is made to East Lansing Farmer's Market Manager Heather Surface.

Why all the police? Two readers asked me whether “so many” East Lansing Police officers were at the market because of the Country Mill controversy. I was at the market twice and counted at most a total of three officers, including the new interim police chief, except when officers were switching over duties, when there were five. (It was pretty hot out there in those dark blue uniforms.)

ELPD has frequently used the market for community outreach, which means it is not uncommon to see officers at the market talking with children and other community members, as happened this weekend. It’s also worth remembering that the police here might be reasonably concerned about having officers at the market and other outdoor gatherings given recent terrorists attacks in the U.K. Additionally, this is Larry Sparkes’ first weekend as interim Chief of Police, and he has a long history of community outreach work at ELPD. (Read about Sparkes' history in the report ELi’s Jessy Gregg provided.)

Asked afterwards about the presence of himself and other ELPD officers at the market, Sparkes said by email, "I wanted to demonstrate my desire to be part of the community and there is no better time than my first weekend as Interim Chief. Officers were assigned for community outreach and overall safety for all persons." Sparkes added, "I enjoyed the market and came home with some homemade bread and honey!"


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