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Farmer's Same-Sex Marriage Views Got Him Barred From Local Market

Stephen Tennes believes his right to free speech has been violated.

06/06/2017 12:12 EDT

A Michigan man whose farm was shut out of a local market over his same-sex marriage views believes his free speech rights have been violated. 

Stephen Tennes, who owns and operates Country Mill Farms in Charlotte, Michigan, filed a lawsuit Wednesday after his farm was barred from selling produce at farmers markets in East Lansing because he opposes marriage equality, Religion News Service reported. In his suit, Tennes cited his “Catholic belief that marriage is a sacramental union between one man and one woman.” 

The married father of five told Fox News that his farm serves and employs members of the local LGBTQ community, but he nonetheless expressed his opposition to marriage equality twice on Facebook, once in August and again in December. After the August post sparked a backlash, Tennes said Country Mill Farms would no longer host weddings of any kind. By December, the farm announced that weddings would resume on the property, but only for heterosexual couples. 

“It remains our deeply held religious belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman and Country Mill has the First Amendment Right to express and act upon its beliefs,” read the December post, which can be found below. “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.”

When Tennes applied to be a part of the East Lansing farmers market in January, his permit application was denied. In an interview with Lansing State Journal, East Lansing City Manager George Lahanas confirmed that Country Mill Farms’ permit had been turned down, citing the city’s civil rights ordinance, which includes sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in “all business practices.” “When they applied,” he said, “we decided to exclude them from the market based on that.”

Tennes said he was “surprised” by the decision. “For over seven years, we’ve been serving all the customers with no complaints, no issues, no protests,” he said in the above video produced by the religious freedom advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing him.

He wants a judge to order East Lansing to not only allow Country Mill Farms to sell produce at the market once again, but also stop the city from being allowed to extend its policies to businesses outside of its bounds. “Never before would I ever have thought that the faith that we have here in our family, in our home, at our farm,” he said, “would prohibit us from being allowed to participate in the community.” 

The Alliance Defending Freedom’s Marissa Mayer echoed those sentiments in a Friday blog post on the group’s website. “The Tennes family’s statement of their religious belief in biblical marriage was the only reason for their farm’s expulsion from the market,” she wrote. “East Lansing can’t preach diversity, then turn around and discriminate against people of faith because those people hold and express views the city does not like.” 

Lahanas has adamantly defended East Lansing’s decision to reject Tennes’ application. “It’s because of their business practice of excluding people, [that’s] the issue,” he said in a Thursday interview with The State News. “They can have any belief they want, but if they’re excluding people, that’s the difference.”

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