Who would ban an honest farmer from selling fresh produce?
Sunday June 4 is opening day of the East Lansing, Michigan, farmers market. But if you’re in the neighborhood you won’t be able to buy fresh produce from farmers Steve and Bridget Tennes. Although the Tennes family has been a vendor at the market for six years, this year the city of East Lansing has shut down their farm stand. And it has nothing to do with the quality of the produce from the family’s 120-acre Country Mill Farm.
For some time now the Tenneses have been renting out their orchard as a venue for weddings. Back in August 2016, a lady posted an inquiry on Country Mill’s Facebook page asking if the farm hosted gay weddings? In his reply Steve explained that he and his wife and their five children are Catholic, and they believe what their church teaches — that a marriage is a union between one man and one woman. Consequently, he could not in conscience host a gay wedding at his farm. But Tennes did recommend neighboring farms where the couple could hold their ceremony.
Someone learned of this exchange on Facebook and reported it to officials at the East Lansing city hall. Steve heard from some functionary who asked him not to come to the next farmers market for fear that his presence would provoke a raucous demonstration. Steve went anyway. No outraged protesters. No self-righteous demonstrators. No black-masked, Molotov-cocktail-hurling rioters. Just shoppers. As he said at a news conference last Wednesday, his definition of marriage “does [not] 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.”
To my way of thinking, that’s a sound business model. If you’re a farmer, are you really going to quiz each potential customer about his or her religious or political beliefs before selling them a bag of organic apples?
After declining to host a gay wedding last August, Steve and Bridget decided to shut down their sideline wedding business at the farm. That strikes me as the prudent thing to do.
Consider the current climate: How many bakers, florists, and Lord knows what other small family-operated wedding-related businesses have come under fire, been hauled into court, and in some cases been hounded out of the marketplace because their religious beliefs would not permit them to provide services for a gay wedding?
It is a legal minefield. The public accommodation legislation prohibits owners of private businesses from refusing to serve a would-be customer based on that person’s race, color, religion, or place of national origin. It’s a civil rights issue. But for believers from a variety of religious persuasions, the state’s recognition of gay marriage has put them in a difficult position. Do they follow the precepts of their faith, or do they submit to a government fiat?
I have a different but related question. A Catholic cannot divorce and remarry without first securing an annulment of the previous marriage from the Church. (In the U.S., there is a tribunal in every diocese that handles such cases.) Let’s imagine a divorced Catholic couple, neither of whom have received an annulment, show up at Country Mill to plan an orchard wedding. What do Steve and Bridget do? If they turn away a gay couple for religious reasons, wouldn’t they have to turn away the divorced Catholic couple, also for religious reasons?
You see how this particular slope can get pretty slippery. And I don’t know the answer.
After several months out of the wedding business, Steve went back to Facebook in December 2016 to announce that once again Country Mill would host weddings in the 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,” Steve wrote in his post. “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.” Then he added, “We appreciate the tolerance offered to us specifically regarding our participation in hosting wedding ceremonies at our family farm.”
That decision to re-enter the orchard wedding business strikes me as the not-so-prudent thing to do. My issue is the farmers market brouhaha.
A few weeks later, the Tenneses submitted the necessary paperwork to participate in the 2017 farmers market. The city of East Lansing denied their request because, as the rejection letter explained, “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 Guideline.”
Mark Meadows, mayor of East Lansing, gave a more direct response to the question why were the Tenneses banned from the farmers market: “This is about them operating a business that discriminates against LGBT individuals.”
We’ve seen this kind of set-in-stone political/social/sexual orthodoxy before. What gives elected officials the right to pry into the soul of a would-be vendor before letting him or her sell a head of lettuce?
So Steve and Bridget are suing the city of East Lansing in federal court. They are represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom. In an interview with Fox News, attorney Kate Anderson said, “All Steve wants to do is sell his food to anyone who wants to buy it, but the city isn’t letting him. People of faith, like the Tennes family, should be free to live and work according to their deeply held beliefs without fear of losing their livelihood.”
In the meantime, perhaps the Tennes family could find another venue for their produce. On the definition of marriage, the Amish share the same point of view as Catholics. And there are Amish farm markets in Michigan. Perhaps Country Mill could team up with one of them.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of the newly released 101 Places to Pray Before You Die: A Roamin’ Catholic’s Guide.
A Michigan farmers' market (Creative Commons)