A federal court in Michigan is set to rule in the case of a farm that was banned from a city farm market in East Lansing over its owners' objection to allowing same-sex couples to hold weddings on their property, following a bench trial this week.
The legal battle that started in 2016 is yet another instance of the difficulty federal courts are having in trying to balance the First Amendment rights of religious people and the rights of gay persons. And it implicates the decision of two major Supreme Court rulings from the past four years.
Country Mill Farms is managed by Stephen Tennes and his wife Bridget, and they have sold their produce at a market managed by the city of East Lansing, Michigan for years. The family has also hosted weddings on their property but in 2016, they stopped temporarily amid controversy over a Facebook post in which the family said it opposes same-sex weddings because of their Catholic faith.
The family, in December 2016 eventually announced in a Facebook post that it would resume hosting weddings but exclude gay couples. Consequently, East Lansing banned Country Mill from its market under a newly-created policy positing all vendors must comply with the city's non-discrimination policy in their general operations.
In the pos,t the Country Mill made in December 2016, on Facebook it said that it engages in expressing its purpose and beliefs through the management of its business and expertise. It also said that i it intentionally communicates information that promote the owners’ beliefs and would refuse to communicate messages that violate those beliefs. Consequently, it reserves the right to deny a request for services that would require it violates the owners’ sincerely held religious beliefs and conscience."
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) Senior Counsel Kate Anderson lamented the situation, saying that if a city can target and punish a farmer for his religious beliefs on marriage, and do the things that they did and get away with that kind of authority over somebody's religious beliefs, then they truly have t power to impact everybody's religious beliefs. She said that it was something that violates the term of the Constitution, calling the city's conduct 'egregious'.
ADF is representing, the farm owners, Country Mill in this case.
According to the court documents submitted by their lawyers, the Tennes family "are ‘closely involved'" in the weddings they host – they oversee the minute details of the wedding and also pray for the couples. The family's lawyers argue that the way Tennes runs his business is an expression of his religious life.
The brief of the farm's trial posits that the religious conduct that flows from his religious belief is constitutionally protected. The city vehemently opposed this fact, saying Country Mills' decision not to host same-sex weddings is "commercial conduct" which does not have any form of cover under the First Amendment.”
Fulton v. City of Philadelphia and Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission are two major Supreme Court precedents.
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