An employee of Country Mill sells apples and apple products like cider at the East Lansing Farmer’s Market Sunday. They returned to the market after winning a federal court injunction. They had been banned from the market for discrimination against same-sex couples.
A Catholic farmer, armed with a court order, returned to hawking his apples at the East Lansing Farmer’s Market Sunday despite the city and some area residents not wanting him there.
Farmer Steve Tennes of Charlotte Michigan based Country Mill has been at the center of a battle with the college town since last year. That’s when he posted a statement on his Facebook page that his Catholic beliefs prevented him from renting his orchard to same-sex couples for marriage ceremonies or events.
U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney ruled Friday the despite the city seeing the farmer’s actions to discriminate against same-sex couples as a violation of its law, that Tennes and his orchard had a compelling case that the city retaliated against Tennes for his religious beliefs in violation of the First Amendment. Maloney then issued a preliminary injunction against the city prohibiting it from keeping Tennes and his Country Mill business out of the market.
East Lansing issued a statement Friday calling the decision “disappointing,” but acknowledging that it would “comply” with the order. The statement also called on those feeling “disappointed” by the ruling “to respect the court’s ruling.”
But on Sunday, a group of LGBT people and allies stood in front of Country Mill’s red awning tent talking to customers about the lawsuit and the alleged discrimination.
“We moved to East Lansing to raise our family in an inclusive community,” said protester DeeDee Brown-Wren of East Lansing. “East Lansing’s nondiscrimination ordinance gives us a sense of safety and belonging. One of our values in our family is to spend money on businesses that affirm our place in this community The Country Mill was a place that our family enjoyed spending time at every fall. It’s disheartening to hear that they were willing to take our money but not support our family.”
They were surrounded by television cameras and still photographers, which irritated at least one vendor.
“My problem is I’m here to do business” said Dale Woods, owner of Applegarth Honey. “I don’t need two cameras and a crowd of people blocking my booth. This is my business, I’m here to sell honey. I’m not here for political reasons.”
Country Mill, despite a handful of protesters, did brisk business Sunday.
David and Jane Lopez said they travelled from metro Detroit to support the orchard.
“We wanted to be supportive of what they were doing and their ability to choose what they do in their own homes,” David said.
“And with their own property, Jane piped in.
“It’s got nothing to do with discrimination,” David said. “If somebody came into your home and said you need to do this here, I don’t think you’d be very happy about it.”
The couple are Catholics.
The case dates back to August 2016, when the city asked Tennes to voluntarily remove himself from the publicly financed farmer’s market held each Sunday in Valley Court Park, over his Facebook statements on same-sex couples. Tennes refused. Ultimately he announced he would stop renting the facilities for any wedding related event. He finished out the market season last year.
Tennes took to Facebook in Dec. to announce his company, as a matter of policy, would discriminate against same-sex couples in renting out their facilities. The City of East Lansing, which has the oldest human rights ordinance including sexual orientation in the country, cried foul. They adopted a new rule requiring vendors at the market to sign an acknowledgement they would follow East Lansing’s ordinance in their general business practices. Tennes, despite signing an agreement that he would follow the city’s law, was denied a permit because of his discrimination against same-sex couples.
He sued the city in federal court in May claiming the refusal to issue a permit violated his religious freedom. His lawsuit also contends that the city is overstepping its legal boundaries by trying to enforce its local law in another county and city, violating the city’s Home Rule Act.
While Tennes has the blessing of the federal court to return until the end of the season, activists say they will continue to educate shoppers about his business practices and the lawsuit.
“I think folks will continue to protest as long as he is at the market,” said Brown-Wren.