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East Lansing to pay $825k for violating farmer’s free speech

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(The Center Square) – When the city of East Lansing excluded someone from a farmer’s market because of his religious beliefs, they violated his right to free speech and freedom of religion.

The exclusion of Country Mill Farms owner Stephen Tennes from the farmers market because he refused to play host to same-sex wedding ceremonies at his farm, detailed in a 2017 lawsuit, will cost East Lansing $825,000 in damages and attorney fees.

U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan Judge Paul Maloney said the city can enforce vendor guidelines against Tennes but can’t ban him from participating in the farmer’s market because of his religious beliefs on same-sex marriages.

“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.”

The lawsuit requires the city to pay $41,199 in damages and $783,801 in attorneys’ fees.

In August, a federal district court ruled that Country Mill Farms owner Steve Tennes can continue participating in the East Lansing farmer’s market.

Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing Tennes and his farm sued the city after officials excluded Tennes from the market because of his religious beliefs.

“Steve and his family-run farm happily serve all customers as a valued vendor at East Lansing’s farmer’s market,” ADF Senior Counsel Kate Anderson said in a statement. “The court was right to agree that the First Amendment protects Steve, like every other small business owner, to operate his business according to his faith and convictions. We’re pleased to favorably settle this lawsuit on behalf of Steve so he and his family can continue doing what Country Mill does best, as expressed in its mission statement: ‘glorifying God by facilitating family fun on the farm and feeding families.’”

After Tennes posted on Facebook that he follows the Catholic Church’s teachings about marriage, city officials allegedly prohibited Tennes and Country Mill Farms from participating in the city’s farmer’s market.

The farm in question is in Charlotte, 22 miles from East Lansing.

East Lansing hasn’t yet responded to a request for comment.

As part of the settlement agreement, East Lansing agreed Tennes is free to continue running his business according to his religious beliefs about marriage without jeopardizing his ability to participate in the city’s farmer’s market.

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