Steve Tennes (above) and his devout Catholic family own Country Mill Farms, Winery, Orchard and Cider Mill. in Charlotte, Michigan. The picturesque locale makes additional income by renting out the venue for weddings and events.
Last August, a visitor to Country Mill’s Facebook page asked if they hosted gay weddings at the farm. Tennes answered in the negative, explaining that his Catholic family believes marriage should be between a man and woman. The Tennes family sells its products at an East Lansing farmers market, and that city’s officials were notified of their “no gay weddings” policy. A city ordinance requires that participants in the market, even those not located within East Lansing city limits, have to agree with its non-discrimination ordinance. “I think it’s a very strong principle that you should not be discriminating against somebody elsewhere and then come here and want to participate in our market,” East Lansing City Manager George Lahanas told the news media.
Lansing officials urged (threatened?) Tennes to comply with its ordinance, so the farm stopped hosting weddings of any kind for a while. Then Tennes decided to defy the order and announced on Facebook that the farm would resume hosting weddings, but only those involving a man and a women. In turn, the city told Tennes that his farm would not be welcome at the farmer’s market for the 2017 season.
“It was brought to our attention that The Country Mill’s general business practices do not comply with East Lansing’s Civil Rights ordinances and public policy against discrimination as set forth in Chapter 22 of the City Code and outlined in the 2017 Market Vendor Guidelines, as such, The Country Mill’s presence as a vendor is prohibited by the City’s Farmer’s Market Vendor Guidelines,” the city said in a letter to the family. Just coincidentally I’m sure, East Lansing recently updated its civil rights ordinance to include discrimination at “all business practices” for participants the city’s farmers market. City Mayor Mark Meadows said the farm’s exclusion is based on the Tennes family’s “business decision” to exclude same-sex weddings. (Since the limitations on the weddings performed undoubtedly forfeits business, I have my doubts about whether the city can win the claim that it is a business decision and not a religious one.)
Now the farm is suing East Lansing. “Our faith and beliefs on marriage and hosting weddings at our home and in our backyard of our farm have nothing to do with the city of East Lansing,” Tennes said at a press conference last week “Nor does it have anything to do with the produce that we sell to the people that attend the farmers markets who are from all backgrounds and all beliefs.”
The suit asks the court to restore Country Mill Farms’ freedoms, stop East Lansing’s “discriminatory policy,” and award damages. The city claims its policy is in line with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling eliminating a ban on same-sex marriage.
My first comment: Yechhh. I’ll sure be clad when society is accustomed enough to same-sex couples that people stop treating them like they are viruses and other people stop bullying those who are slow to accept the cultural shift into submission.
I think East Lansing loses this lawsuit, or at least should.
At first it reminded me of this case, from 2014, where a family-run chapel was initially told by Coeur d’Alene, Idaho that it had to hold same-sex weddings. The city backed down, but the decisive issue in that case was that the chapel’s minister would be forced to do a ceremony that his religious beliefs didn’t permit. Forced speech is as unconstitutional as restricted speech, so the city eventually said, “Never mind!”
I wrote in part,
What’s next, legally requiring citizens to accept invitations to gay weddings? Make sure they get a nice gift? …It appears not to even occur to dedicated gay marriage rights activists that Americans can’t be forced to say what the good people think they should say, or support what the right people insist they should support. I happen to believe that same-sex marriages are good, and that legalizing them is right. Nonetheless, if you tell me I have to officiate at one of them or be fined, we have a problem. This kind of fascism from the left—and that’s what it is— forfeits the support of the fair, the moderate and the sane…Any advance in ethics can become a slippery slope to the unethical, and this is a good example. Personal autonomy still matters; freedom of belief is still an important right to respect and protect. Slippery slopes need sand, and this is an excellent example of why.
The ethics issue here is related, but different. This one reminds me more of the Chic-Fil-A controversy, when various mayors were announcing that because the company’s owner was a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage, his business wasn’t welcome in their cities. I wrote (in part) about that ethics train wreck:
This, my friends, is why the ends do not justify the means.
I have read misguided blog post after misguided blog post and endured self-righteous commenters who are beyond idiotic who endorse the disgraceful comments of Menino, Emanuel, and the other anti-democratic bullying mayors, councilmen and aldermen because “they are standing up for what is right.” Maybe…but in doing so by mounting what amounts to an official attack on a private business and citizens, they are embracing what is undeniably wrong, according to this country’s values: government and its officials telling the public, not what they should do, which is a proper role of the government, but what they must say and believe, which is what the Constitution decrees that government must never do.
What does this clear abuse of power accomplish? As with any time unethical methods are applied to seek “good” ends, it forces both advocates and opponents to either accept unacceptable conduct, or to ally themselves with those who oppose what they believe is right, in order to reject a wrongful means of accomplishing it. And the results of this is inevitable corruption. Everybody is sullied….Put the blame squarely on the political correctness dictators for turning this into an ethics train wreck.
Again, however, this isn’t quite the same thing. Steve Tennes attracted the attention of East Lansing pro-gay marriage activists by what he said (Was he targeted and set up? Is there any doubt?), but he was also acting on his beliefs by not allowing gay couples to use his property. In that, he is unethical, and maybe violating the law. Michigan law prohibits discrimination in public accommodations based on “religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, or marital status’—but not sexual orientation. A public accommodation is defined as “a business, or an educational, refreshment, entertainment, recreation, health, or transportation facility, or institution of any kind, whether licensed or not, whose goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations are extended, offered, sold, or otherwise made available to the public.” In any event, Country Mill Orchard and Cider Mill is subject to Michigan law and Charlotte ordinances, but Tennes only is obligated to obey the laws of East Lansing when he is physically in East Lansing.
The city’s anti-discrimination law is absurd over-reach as applied: it justifies punishing Tennes for his conduct outside of its jurisdiction, and worse than that, punishes him for his beliefs that he has not even brought to bear on anyone within the East Lansing city limits, except that East Lansing doesn’t agree with those beliefs. Well, neither do I, and the city has no more justification for blocking his legal business enterprises—selling his products at the farmers market—than I do.
No, this isn’t like the minister that a a city wanted to force to perform gay marriages, and it isn’t exactly like the mayors blathering that someone who holds opinions they don’t like isn’t welcome. What East Lansing is doing is another disturbing example of those who are convinced of the unquestionable virtue of their own beliefs attempting to cast out those who do not conform, segregating American society across the political, ideological and social divides. This is the gym kicking out the white nationalist, and the heating oil supplier who tells Trump voters to but their oil elsewhere, but expanded to a whole city, requiring the abuse of its power. Because Steve Tennes doesn’t support same sex marriage as his religion teaches him, then he is no longer fit to sell his fruit with the decent people who believe what the laws in East Lansing say they must.
The government can’t punish someone for his beliefs, only for his actions, and Tennes’s conduct while he is in East Lansing is legal and inoffensive. How he runs his business when he is home and out of the city is none of the city’s concern.