A Facebook post pronouncing a Charlotte farm family’s opposition to hosting same-sex marriages in a facility they operate caused the city of East Lansing to deny their participation in the city's Farmer’s Market this year. This according to documents received in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
The family has responded by filing a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city.
The case involves a family-owned cider mill and winery operation, which also leases facilities for weddings. Emails between East Lansing city officials show they believed the family’s decision to only host heterosexual marriages violates the city’s civil rights ordinance, although the farm is not located in their jurisdiction.
East Lansing officials had previously asked the family to stop bringing produce to the market after hearing of a Facebook post announcing their choice not to host same-sex weddings. Before its 2017 participation was denied, the farm had sold organic fruit at the city’s farmer’s market for seven years without any complaints of discrimination.
Steve and Bridget Tennes are the owners of the operation, called Country Mill Farms LLC, and their suit challenges the city’s refusal to allow their participation in the city’s weekly farmer’s market. The Country Mill Farm and Steve Tennes are being represented by a nonprofit called the Alliance Defending Freedom.
City officials sent an email to Tennes on March 15, 2017 that read: “It was brought to our attention this winter that your Facebook post dated Dec. 12, 2016 outlines a business practice that would be considered a violation of the City of East Lansing’s Civil Rights Ordinances and our public policy against discrimination…”
In the farm’s Dec. 12 Facebook post announcing its same-sex weddings policy, Country Mill reported that they had previously decided to no longer host wedding parties. The post explained this was despite the Tennes family’s belief that the First Amendment protects a facility owners’ decision 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.”
The March 15 email from the city was drafted after Tennes sent an email to its Stewardship and Community Events Specialist, Heather Surface, inquiring about why his application to sell produce East Lansing farmer’s market in 2017 had been denied.
“I reviewed our application that we sent you and was not able to see what you might be referring to regarding our general business practices,” Tennes said. “Could you be more specific on why we are prohibited from continuing to attend the [East Lansing Farmer’s Market]? We are not aware of any complaints from our ELFM booth or customers there. Have you received any?”
The situation goes back to 2014, when the Tennes family refused to host the same-sex wedding of Caitlin and Liane Ortis. The two were married at another location in 2015, and Country Mill continued to host heterosexual marriages.
On Aug. 22, 2016, Caitlin Ortis wrote a post on Facebook encouraging friends and family in Michigan to avoid Country Mill that coming fall because the farm had refused to host her wedding in 2015. The post has been shared more than 100 times, and was also picked up by local news outlets.
On Aug. 25, 2016 Country Mill announced on its Facebook page that it would no longer host any marriages, so as to “maintain our personal religious beliefs.”
Later that day East Lansing Mayor Mark Meadows sent an email to the city’s Community Development and Engagement Manager, Amy Schlusler, asking if Country Mill had a place in the city’s farmer’s market.
“Yes! They do,” she said.
Meadows then said the city needed to find out if this violated its civil rights ordinance. He also expressed concern over potential demonstrations protesting Country Mill’s presence at the market.
“Might be better to have them not come until all this can be straightened out,” he said.
East Lansing’s civil rights ordinance prohibits denying “full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of a place of public accommodation or public service,” on the basis of an individual’s sexual orientation.
City officials then contacted Country Mill to request its owners voluntarily agree not to participate in the upcoming Aug. 28 farmers market, because they wanted more time to discuss it.
On Aug. 26, TV station WILX News 10 reported Country Mill’s choice to no longer host weddings, one day after the farm’s Facebook post announcing it.
Emails indicate Parks, Recreation, and Arts Director Tim McCaffrey saw the WILX report and emailed City Manager George Lahanas suggesting the city rescind its request that Country Mill not attend the next day’s farmer’s market.
Later in the email chain, Meadows discussed what he saw as an issue with the statements by Country Mill.
“Do their religious beliefs permit them to sell apples to a same sex couple at the farmers market,” Meadows said in an email to the city manager. “I think we can expect a demonstration at the farmers market.”
East Lansing Councilmember Erik Altmann wanted more concrete assurances that Country Mill wouldn’t discriminate against anyone on their farm.
“If this vendor was in fact recently discriminating, and we’ve just discovered this, then I’d prefer maintaining the request not to vend until we get more direct assurances,” he said.
Later that morning, Lahanas emailed the council and informed them that the city would maintain its request that Country Mill voluntarily not attend the upcoming farmer’s market.
“We heard from their attorney that they plan on attending. We have spoken with ELPD and will have officers available in the event that they are needed. Tim McCaffrey will communicate with the other vendors about the possibility of protesters,” he said.
Emails also indicate that members of city government received emails inquiring about Country Mill’s attendance at the farmer’s market after it was revealed they had refused to host a same-sex wedding. County Mill participated in the Aug. 28 farmer’s market, and opponents to the family’s beliefs and choices caused no disturbances according to McCaffrey.
In an Aug. 29, 2016 email to Lahanas, McCaffrey said Diane Tennes, Steve Tennes’s sister-in-law, had assured him that they no longer hold weddings on their property and that they would serve all customers regardless of sexual orientation.
“To our knowledge, they have always served any customer at our farmer’s market,” McCaffrey said.
Then in a Dec. 12 Facebook post, Country Mill announced it would continue hosting weddings and reserved the right to deny any request which would require it to violate the owner’s religious beliefs.
The next year, Surface received Country Mill’s application to vend at the farmer’s market in February and on March 7, she replied in an email informing the farm that its application had been rejected. In an email, McCaffrey claimed the decision to reject Country Mill’s application was not made before its application was received.
The decision to deny Country Mill farm’s application was discussed among members of East Lansing’s city government, the city council, city manager, and assistant city manager. The city council knew McCaffrey and Surface were going to send an email to Country Mill on March 7 denying their request to vend at the farmer’s market that year.
“No concerns. I think this is the right move,” Altmann said in a March 8, 2017 email to Assistant to the City Manager Eilis Seide.
Before its application was denied in 2017, Country Mill had participated in the East Lansing Farmer’s Market for seven years.
East Lansing claims to be the first city in America to pass an ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. The city also has an ordinance banning vendors who discriminate based on sexual orientation. In 2017, the city’s farmer’s market guidelines were updated to more clearly reflect the ordinance.
The city contends Country Mill violated the ordinances against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Country Mill farm, which is based in Charlotte, is about 25 miles Southwest of East Lansing, outside of the East Lansing city government’s jurisdiction.
After Country Mill and Steve Tennes sued East Lansing, the city received more than 1,200 emails opposed to it according to a report on MLive. A number of the emails criticizing the city’s decision used coarse language or even made threats.
Members of East Lansing’s city government said they would not comment.
Steve Tennes didn't respond to an email sent to his personal email account.
Evan Carter writes for Michigan Capitol Confidential.