Country Mill Lawsuit Costs East Lansing Taxpayers $182K and Counting

Tuesday, June 4, 2019, 6:30 pm
By: 
Alice Dreger

A lawsuit against the City of East Lansing by a farmers’ market vendor has cost East Lansing taxpayers over $182,000 in legal bills so far, and the case is potentially far from over.

Results of a Freedom of Information Act request received today show that, through April 2019, the City paid the law firm of Plunkett Cooney $176,594 for legal defense in the Country Mill case, and paid the firm of contracted City Attorney Tom Yeadon an additional $5,589.

The Charlotte-based orchard Country Mill sued the City of East Lansing after the City’s management refused to allow them to return as a vendor.

That followed a Facebook post by Country Mill’s owner Stephen Tennes indicating he would not perform same-sex marriages at their Charlotte orchard for religious reasons.

Tennes and his family are Catholic. They have not refused to serve anyone at the East Lansing market, but the City told them that their decision about their Charlotte location means the City of East Lansing won’t do business with them.

East Lansing’s Farmers Market opened this past Sunday for the 2019 season, and Country Mills was in attendance again.

In his remarks preceding the ceremonial ringing of the market bell, Mayor Mark Meadows noted that “East Lansing celebrates Pride Month” and was the first city in the nation to offer civil rights protections to its gay, lesbian, and bi citizens.

Tonight’s City Council agenda includes passing a resolution “proclaiming June as LGBTQ+ Pride Month and encouraging individuals to participate in Pride Day.”

Members of Council, including Meadows and Council member Ruth Beier, have said they support paying to defend the lawsuit because of what they see as a core civil rights issue.

News of the case has gone national, as Tennes has been defended by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a powerhouse Christian religious legal rights group.

East Lansing has received thousands of angry messages about the City’s stance from around the country as conservative Christian rights organizations and broadcasters have framed the issue as a major First Amendment case.

Meanwhile, the City of East Lansing has been facing a financial crisis, with City Council recently arguing about amounts as small as $7,000 in the forthcoming budget.

East Lansing voters were asked by City Council to help with the financial crisis by passing an income tax, which they did in 2018.

ELi reported before the vote that Plunkett Cooney, representing East Lansing in the Country Mills case, donated $2,500 to the “vote yes” income tax campaign.

East Lansing’s City Council decided without warning in April of this year to open up bids for the City Attorney position. Yeadon’s firm and Plunket Cooney were listed among the 16 firms specifically being invited to apply.

Update, June 4, 2019, 9 p.m.: At City Council tonight, Meadows again supported the cost involved in defending the City’s position in this suit, saying he believes that it is an extraordinarily important issue that will ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Read more about the details of the case in a recent report by the Lansing State Journal.

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