A ruling is expected any day now in the case of a disgruntled wedding venue owner who was banned from the East Lansing Farmers Market for violating that city’s non-discrimination policy.
The case dates back to 2016, when Country Mill Farms’ owner Stephen Tennes was told his farm was no longer welcome to sell in the market because the Country Mills Farms’ wedding venue refused to hold same-sex ceremonies. Though Tonnes cites a religious conflict with his Catholic faith, this stance violates a recently created policy requiring all vendors to adhere to the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance in their general operations.
A bench trial took place in federal court last week. Its decision will likely have wide-ranging impact thanks to precedent set by two recent Supreme Court rulings – Fulton v City of Philadelphia and Masterpiece Cakeshop v Colorado. In Fulton, the city refused to issue a new contract to a religious-backed foster care agency who would not place children with same-sex couples. The court ruled in favor of Fulton saying that because the city allowed for exceptions to be made to its anti-discrimination policy for foster care certification, the city’s policy violated the agency’s free exercise of religion.
In Masterpiece, meanwhile, the court narrowly ruled for the cakeshop saying the state’s Civil Rights Commission did not exercise religious neutrality in its decision while not addressing the larger issue of conflict between non-discrimination ordinances and exercise of religion.
“Both Masterpiece and Fulton are narrow decisions based on specific factual circumstances,” said Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s LGBT Project. “Local governments like East Lansing do have an important interest in enforcing civil rights laws and policies and neither Supreme Court decision has taken away or limited that interest. … The years-long legal battle is yet another example of the difficulty federal courts are having balancing the First Amendment rights of religious people and the rights of gay people not to be discriminated against.”
For his part, Tennes says his business is an extension of his faith.
“The Country Mill engages in expressing its purpose and beliefs through the operation of its business and it intentionally communicates messages that promote its owners’ beliefs and declines to communicate messages that violate those beliefs,” read a Facebook post the farm posted at the start of the case. “For this reason, Country Mill reserves the right to deny a request for services that would require it to communicate, engage in, or host expression that violates the owners’ sincerely held religious beliefs and conscience.”
But Country Mill Farms is not a religious institution. It is a for-profit business.
“I find it troubling that people who are in the stream of commerce in the name of first amendment rights continue to perpetuate bigotry and hatred toward special groups of individuals, in this case LGBT individuals,” said Ann Arbor-based attorney Angie Martell.
“For years, segregation and bigotry was allowed in the name of religion to perpetuate the inequalities of race and gender,” she said. “The time has come to say no. Country Mill is a for-profit, non-religious entity that seeks to sell products in the stream of commerce. East Lansing, like Royal Oak, Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids and a plethora of other cities across Michigan have non-discrimination ordinances that do not allow any person to discriminate against another.”
Martell said that this specific persecution of LGBTQ+ people is unacceptable.
“We wouldn’t allow it for race and gender so why is LGBT any different? Allowing this intolerance creates and perpetuates a second-class status for all LGBT people in the state of Michigan.”