America’s hyper-politicization continues to grow apace. We now find public officials who regard themselves as “progressive” attacking citizens who don’t happen to agree with every aspect of their agenda (i.e., state regulation of just about everything). A revealing case like that has just surfaced in Michigan.
Steve Tennes owns a farm (called The Country Mill) in the small town of Charlotte in south-central Michigan. He grows a variety of fruit and for years has been trucking some of it to sell in the public Farmers Market in East Lansing, about twenty miles away.
The buying and selling of produce used to be a matter of pure commerce, untainted by politics, but now East Lansing officials have banned Tennes from their market because he did something unpardonable he declined to do a same-sex wedding on his property (which isn’t even in the same county as East Lansing). Once that came to light, city officials decided to strike back at him through their regulatory powers.
Here’s how this story unfolded. In 2014, a gay couple wanted an orchard wedding at The Country Mill, which is something Tennes offers. But he turned these two women down because of his religious belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman. He suggested that they try another farm in the area and the two were subsequently married in 2015. The following year, however, one of the two women wrote a Facebook post in which she urged consumers not to do business with Country Mill due to the owner’s discrimination against gay couples.
In doing that, she was perfectly within her rights. People are free to denounce merchants and advocate boycotts against them if they wish. That Facebook post, however, didn’t have much impact and did not keep Tennes from selling his goods that summer. People are also free to ignore denunciations of merchants and continue to buy even though others don’t want them to.
After the controversy broke, Tennes initially stopped holding any weddings on his property, but later resumed doing so under his conviction that marriage is between a man and a woman. Tennes explained his decision in a Facebook post of his own, saying:
“The Country Mill family and its staff have and will continue to participate in hosting the ceremonies held at our orchard. 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.
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. We appreciate the tolerance offered to us specifically regarding our participation in hosting weddings at our family farm.”
East Lansing officials were emphatically not willing to show Tennes any tolerance once they read that. Mayor Mark Meadows (quoted ) stated that while the family is free to hold their religious beliefs, “This is about them operating a business that discriminates against LGBT individuals and that’s a whole different issue.”
But what does one of their business decisions on their farm outside the jurisdiction of East Lansing have to do with whether the Tennes family is allowed to sell fruit in the farmers market? Whatever regulations may apply to vendors in the market should pertain to quality and health, not to the political, religious, or other beliefs of the people selling the produce.
The most worrisome aspect of this case is that it shows how easy it is for an official to abuse his position of public authority to pursue an ideological vendetta. America has entered into what legal scholar Timothy Sandefur calls in a recent book and one aspect of that is how it empowers politicians to play favorites when they decide to give or withhold permission.
Fortunately, Tennes is challenging the legality of East Lansing’s exclusion of his business from the farmers market. Aided by Alliance Defending Freedom, he has filed suit in U.S. District Court. His argues that East Lansing has targeted him because of his views about marriage in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as in violation of Michigan law that disallows cities from regulating activities conducted outside their boundaries.
Crucially, the complaint maintains that East Lansing’s action “conditions Plaintiffs’ participation in a public benefit – i.e., the Farmer’s Market on the surrender of Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights to free speech, free press, free exercise of religion, and equal protection under the law.” That is precisely what it does and no government should have such power in the U.S.
The relief Tennes seeks from the court is an injunction to keep East Lansing from enforcing its rule excluding him, a declaration that the city’s policy violated his constitutional rights, and nominal and compensatory money damages.
This case has much in common with the free speech case involving Marquette professor John McAdams, which I recently. Whether you like or dislike what McAdams thinks is beside the point; a college shouldn’t fire a faculty member just because his views upset top administrators. Similarly here, whether you applaud or revile Tennes’ decision not to do same-sex weddings is beside the point; cities should not be allowed to single out individuals and violate their constitutional and statutory rights just because officials disapprove of their beliefs.
One of the great features of America – one that drew millions of immigrants here was that the government was supposed to treat all citizens the same, without distinctions based on race, religion, political party or anything else. A ruling in favor of Tennes would help to keep that ideal aloft.