Steve Tennes would rather be tending his farm than sitting in a courtroom, but that’s where he’ll be this week.
The owner of Country Mill Farms in Charlotte chose to stand for his First Amendment rights, and sued the city of East Lansing in 2017.
This issue? The city kicked Country Mill out of its farmers market in retaliation for a Facebook post Tennes had written, thoughtfully expressing why his family would not host same-sex weddings on their farm as it would go against their deeply held beliefs about marriage.
Tennes welcomes anyone on his farm and sold to all at the farmers market, but this one stance proved too much for East Lansing officials, who claimed what he did on his farm miles from the city went against its anti-discrimination ordinance.
“The city wants to force them to celebrate something that violates their deepest religious convictions,” says John Bursch, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, the nonprofit law firm that is representing Tennes. “It’s offensive and wrong.”
Several months after Tennes filed suit, federal Judge Paul Maloney granted him a preliminary injunction so he could continue selling at the market as the case proceeded.
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On Tuesday, the trial starts in Maloney’s court.
What Tennes and his family are going through is unfortunately not unique. While all human beings deserve to be treated with dignity, as more cities and states pass broadened anti-discrimination laws that include sexual orientation and gender identity people of faith are getting blindsided by governments eager to shut them out of the marketplace.
Thankfully, the Constitution protects our beliefs.
“In this cultural clash between religious liberty and other interests, the [Supreme] Court perceives the religious liberty interests as the ones that have been most persecuted and subdued, and government officials have done their best to hurt religious people and religious communities in really ridiculous ways,” Bursch says.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel is a prime example of a government official targeting those for their beliefs, including Catholic adoption agencies.
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I recently met several creative professionals who’ve spent years battling unfair ordinances that seek to ostracize them from society because of what they believe. As with Tennes, the government demanded they participate in ceremonies and express messages they believe are wrong.
Jack Phillips, the Colorado baker who declined to design a cake for a gay wedding, won before the Supreme Court in 2018. Yet he’s back in court, facing a lawsuit from a transgender activist who wanted a cake celebrating a gender transition.
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And Washington state florist Barronelle Stutzman had served a gay customer for years, but when she politely declined to do the flowers for his wedding, she got sued. After eight years in court, the Supreme Court declined to hear her case this month, so she may now be on the hook for the legal fees, which could destroy her business.
Phillips and Stutzman didn’t intend to become such public figures in their fight for freedom, but they also aren’t willing to back down, despite the toll on them and their families.
I’m sure Tennes feels the same way.
“I have no doubt that someday the Supreme Court will say, yes, the free exercise clause protects your ability to live your faith in the public square, even as a business owner, because that is what our country was founded on,” Bursch says.
“If we lose that, then we’ve lost everything we stand for as a country.”