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Family farm wins right to return to Michigan market

Steve and Bridget Tennes, owners of Country Mill Farms, returned to the East Lansing, Mich., Farmer’s Market Sept. 17 after local officials tried to ban them over their Biblical view of marriage. A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction, allowing the family-owned business to sell its produce at the market while its lawsuit against the city moves forward.

The Tenneses’ return to the weekly market drew gay-rights advocates who lingered at the Country Mill booth to show support for the city policy, which was crafted specifically to oust the Catholic family from the public square. One demonstrator paced back and forth in front of the red-tented booth carrying a sign urging shoppers to “boycott Country Mill” for practicing “hate and bigotry.” But the protests did not dim what the Tenneses saw as a victory.

“We are thrilled that the court has ruled to allow our Country Mill family to continue to serve everyone at the East Lansing Farmer’s Market,” said Steve Tennes. “This ruling acknowledges that every American should be free to live and speak according to our own sincerely held beliefs without fear of government punishment.”

District Judge Paul Maloney issued the preliminary injunction Friday—just two days after hearing arguments in the case—because the Tenneses and Country Mill have a “substantial likelihood of success on at least one of their claims brought under the First Amendment.”

“On the evidence before this court, the city amended its Vendor Guidelines and then used the changes to deny Country Mill’s vendor application,” Maloney wrote. “There exists a substantial likelihood that plaintiffs will be able to prevail on the merits of their claims for speech retaliation and for free exercise of religion.”

East Lansing officials began questioning the Tenneses about their views on marriage after Steve Tennes posted a statement on Facebook about his belief that marriage is a sacramental union between a man and a woman. Any wedding events hosted by Country Mill Farms, where the Tenneses live with their five children, could not conflict with that belief.

City officials took offense and began scouring city policy for any code violation that would allow them to excommunicate Country Mill from the market. Finding no such code, they made one up.

The Tenneses have sold apples, cider, and doughnuts at the East Lansing Farmer’s Market since 2010, returning each season at the city’s invitation. When they didn’t receive an invitation in March for this year’s June through October market, the Tenneses applied for a vendor permit. City officials turned them down, citing the new extension of the municipal nondiscrimination code to apply to market vendors, no matter where they lived. But Country Mill is in Charlotte, Mich., 22 miles outside East Lansing, and cannot be held accountable to East Lansing city code, according to an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom who represents the family.

— by Bonnie Pritchett

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