Michigan orchard that refused same-sex wedding wins in court

A Michigan apple orchard that was denied participation in a city farmers market for refusing to hold same-sex wedding ceremonies has won its case against the city of East Lansing in federal court, six years after filing its lawsuit.

Federal District Judge Paul Maloney ruled Monday that East Lansing’s actions against Country Mill Farms constituted a violation of the free exercise clause.

“The city’s decision to exclude Country Mill Farms from the 2017 East Lansing Farmer’s Market constituted a burden on plaintiffs’ religious beliefs,” Maloney wrote. “Plaintiffs were forced to choose between following their religious beliefs and a government benefit for which they were otherwise qualified.”

Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal group representing Country Mill Farms owner Steve Tennes, said Tuesday that Tennes was grateful to be able to continue working with the city and visitors to the farmers market.

“The district court’s decision rightly protects Steve’s freedom to operate his business according to his convictions,” said Kate Anderson, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom. “Country Mill has continued to participate in the farmer’s market without issue during this litigation.”

Tennes said Tuesday he and his family looked forward to putting the case behind them and were grateful for the support the farm had received over the years since it undertook the lawsuit.

“We’re just really encouraged that the court ruling has affirmed our rights as Americans to basically live our our faith while still being able to provide our family,” Tennes said.

The city of East Lansing said it was reviewing the opinion and “will be discussing potential options,” communications director Carrie Sampson said.

Maloney, an appointee of Republican former President George W. Bush, based his opinion in part on a 2019 U.S. Supreme Court opinion that found Philadelphia had violated the free exercise clause when it refused to work with a Catholic adoption agency because the agency wouldn’t place children with same-sex couples.

East Lansing had argued that case, Fulton v. Philadelphia, didn’t apply to the Country Mill case because the farm is a for-profit operation and not a religious institution, but Maloney rejected that argument.

“The free exercise clause does not limit its protection to religious entities,” Maloney wrote.

The case dates back to 2016, when Country Mill Farms’ policy prohibiting same-sex weddings on the property based on Tennes’ religious beliefs became public. After learning of the policy, the city of East Lansing denied a request from the farm to participate in its farmers market after years of the farm being invited by the city and adjusted farmers market guidelines to add in an anti-discrimination clause.

The city, in its denial of a farmers market license for Country Mill, said the farm’s refusal to hold weddings for gay couples was a violation of East Lansing’s nondiscrimination ordinance and farmers market vendor guidelines.

Country Mill Farms sued the city in 2017, arguing its First Amendment rights, particularly its free exercise of religion, had been violated by the city’s denial. The judge granted a preliminary injunction to Country Mill in 2017 that blocked East Lansing’s ban during the pendency of the case.

The case went to trial in 2021, where Country Mill put up eight witnesses and the city called none. More than two years later, Maloney’s ruling was the outcome of that trial.