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Michigan farmer claims it’s ‘religious freedom’ to deny service to same-sex couples

Here we go again.

Steve and Bridget Tennes. CREDIT: Alliance Defending Freedom/YouTube
Steve and Bridget Tennes. CREDIT: Alliance Defending Freedom/YouTube

The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the anti-LGBTQ hate group fighting for discrimination across the country, is back with a new lawsuit defending a business owner who wants to refuse service to same-sex couples. The latest case involves a Michigan farmer who wants to refuse to host same-sex weddings while still participating in a farmer’s market in a city with nondiscrimination protections.

Steve Tennes, owner of the 120-acre Country Mill farm, announced on Facebook last August that it would temporarily stop booking any weddings at the farm. It had come to light that Tennes had refused a same-sex couple back in 2014 after one of the women in that couple complained publicly. In December, however, Tennes explained that the farm would resume hosting weddings and would reserve the right to refuse same-sex couples because of “deeply held religious belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.”

Michigan has no state law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, so there was no enforcement action against Tennes for this open policy of discrimination. But the Country Mill also participates in a farmer’s market in East Lansing, a city with Michigan’s oldest municipal protections against anti-gay discrimination — dating back to 1972. As a result of Tennes’ new business policy, the Country Mill was not invited back to the farmer’s market this year.

In fact, the city established a new guideline in its vendor application for the farmer’s market. A new requirement for vendors is “complying with the City of East Lansing’s Civil Rights ordinances and the public policy against discrimination… while at the ELFM and as a general business practice.” This requirement that vendors cannot discriminate as a “general business practice” led the city to determine that because of Tennes’ open promise to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation as a wedding venue, the Country Mill no longer qualified to participate in the farmer’s market.

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ADF’s complaint claims that Tennes is having his freedoms of speech, press, and religion violated because he is being punished for expressing his beliefs. It also claims that his right to equal protection was violated because the city allows pro-LGBTQ messages but not anti-LGBTQ messages.

As has been the case in most of ADF’s similar pro-discrimination cases — which they’ve nearly universally lost — these arguments are largely hogwash. That’s because the city was not responding to Tennes’ beliefs, but to his discriminatory business practices. As courts in several other states have ruled (against ADF’s clients and similarly situated businesses), laws protecting against discrimination do not target religious beliefs because they apply neutrally to all purported rationales for the discrimination. If ADF’s points were valid, business owners’ religious beliefs discrimination against interracial and interfaith couples would have to be accommodated as well.

Where ADF might have a case in this particular complaint is in its claim that East Lansing violated Michigan’s Home Rule City Act, which ADF alleges prohibits the city from enforcing its nondiscrimination ordinance outside the city boundaries. On its face, that’s not what the city did, because that would have required actually enforcing the law against the farm for discrimination. But ADF argues that by rejecting the Country Mill’s farmer’s market application, the city is trying to extend the reach of the ordinance 22 miles outside of its jurisdiction to where the farm is located.

Hypothetically, it would only take a single person inquiring at the farmer’s market about the Country Mill hosting a same-sex wedding for this argument to fall apart. Likewise, a judge would have to agree that the city has little to no discretion in assessing the applicants to the farmer’s market in accordance with the city’s laws. In other words, the city would be forced to welcome openly discriminatory businesses to do business in the city based on the logic that it only sells produce in the city, not wedding services.

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In this sense, the case is an interesting new test on ADF’s go-to pro-discrimination argument. As it does on behalf of the Country Mill, ADF regularly asserts that refusing to sell services related to same-sex weddings isn’t anti-gay discrimination so long as the vendor sells all its other products and services to LGBTQ people. For this to be true, it requires believing that “different-sex weddings” and “same-sex weddings” are two different products; otherwise, the business is offering two different menus based on the sexual orientation of the customer, which — as courts have consistently agreed — is clearly discrimination.

The Country Mill offers many services at the farm throughout the year that aren’t part of the farmer’s market, such as a corn maze, hay rides, and a petting zoo. Thus, there are obviously two different menus for two different locations. ADF will likely try to argue that because wedding hosting isn’t a service offered at the farmer’s market, it’s not on that menu and thus there is no way the anti-gay discrimination will take place while Tennes is doing business there. It’s a stretch — and doesn’t change the fact that it’s the same Country Mill with the same Facebook page and same discriminatory policy regardless of where it’s doing business.

The case is one of many suits ADF has filed across the country on behalf of wedding vendors seeking to overturn or circumvent laws protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination. It’s a reminder that the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision did not put an end to discrimination against same-sex couples.