Michigan Farmer’s Lawsuit Calls For Legal LGBTQ Discrimination

Michigan Farmer Country Mills Orchard Lawsuit Calls For Legal LGBTQ Discrimination in East Lansing

An apple farmer near East Lansing, Michigan is suing the city over its Human Rights ordinance that forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation. Because of the existing policy, he is not able to sell his produce at the local outdoor farmers market because it requires all vendors to adhere to the ordinance in order to participate.

Just The Facts

The AP reported:

A Michigan apple grower who posted on Facebook that he wouldn’t allow gay couples to get married at his farm filed a lawsuit against the city of East Lansing on Wednesday after he was shut out of an outdoor farmer’s market.

The city said Stephen Tennes wasn’t invited back to the market because vendors must follow its civil rights ordinance, which bars discrimination. Tennes alleges that the city’s actions violate his rights to free speech and religion.

Tennes’ farm (Country Mill Farms) is located just over 20 miles away from East Lansing – a distance that allows him to legally discriminate against LGBTQ couples seeking to marry at his farm. Tennes is suing to extend that legal right to the East Lansing area in order to sell his products while retaining his right to discriminate based on sexual orientation.

He’s being represented by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) – the same firm that typically represents all such small business anti-LGBTQ cases nationally. Kate Anderson, one of ADF’s attorneys representing Tennes, said, “If the government can shut down a family farmer just because of the religious views he expresses on Facebook … then no American is free.” She added, “The government should never force its citizens to choose between following their deepest convictions and earning a living.”

That Tennes chose to sue to have his personal religious beliefs placed above the city’s anti-discrimination law actually runs counter to statements his farm made last year when controversy over their anti-LGBTQ policy first surfaced. At the time local news outlets explicitly asked if they would abide by the East Lansing farmers market’s anti-discrimination policies, and they agreed they would.

Sometime between then and now, they changed their minds (either on their own accord or with the assistance of ADF).

Despite the lawsuit, East Lansing has thus far refused to back down. Citing their “long-standing ordinance that protects sexual orientation,” the city insists they are enforcing agreed upon city policy in excluding Tennes from their farmers market.

Their full statement reads:

“The Country Mill has been excluded from the East Lansing Farmer’s Market because the East Lansing Farmer’s Market policy requires that all vendors comply with the City’s Civil Rights ordinances while at the market and as a general business practice. Contrary to this policy and the constitutionally protected rights of all couples, The Country Mill has advertised that their business practice is to prohibit same-sex couples from holding weddings at their orchard in Charlotte, MI. Their business practices violate the City of East Lansing’s long-standing ordinance that protects sexual orientation as well as the Supreme Court’s ruling that grants the right for same-sex couples to be married.”

Context

Adding context to the situation in why he’s just now being rejected after selling his produce at the farmers market in previous years, Michigan Public Radio noted:

The city introduced a change to the city’s farmers market vendor agreement this year requiring vendors to agree to and comply with East Lansing’s Human Relations Ordinance. Among other things, the ordinance bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.

But Tennes says he’s the one being discriminated against.

“True tolerance is a two way street,” Tennes told reporters, “The government should not eradicate people of faith from the marketplace.”

Tennes’ attorney declines to say how much money Country Mill farm is losing by not being at the East Lansing farmers market. The farm does sell its produce and other products at other mid-Michigan farmers markets.

The lawsuit not only seeks to allow Tennes the right to sell his product at the farmers market regardless of the law, but also a declaration stating the city’s anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people violate “the United States Constitution’s Freedom of Speech, Free Exercise of Religion, Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses.”

Of particular interest, Tennes appears to be using the same legal tactics and layman arguments other businesses have used to rationalize discriminating against LGBTQ people – tactics that have thus far failed each time they attempted to overturn existing law. Once such example is the case of Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Washington.

Similar Cases

Stutzman (also with the legal help of ADF) challenged her state’s anti-discrimination law protecting LGBTQ people on the basis that she should be allowed a religious exemption to discriminate against LGBTQ couples seeking flowers for their weddings. The state court has repeatedly ruled against her and ADF at every stage of the appeals process.

When addressing the argument of whether religious belief should super cede a local or state public accommodation law, courts must take a specific concept into account:  religious viewpoint discrimination. In her case, Stutzman admitted she was only singling out LGBTQ people for religion-based discrimination and she would serve other customers that run counter to her religious beliefs because selling flowers to those parties wouldn’t mean she is endorsing their personal beliefs.

In the state Supreme Court’s opinion, the majority of justices concluded, “As Stutzman acknowledged at deposition, providing flowers for a wedding between Muslims would not necessarily constitute an endorsement of Islam, nor would providing flowers for an atheist couple endorse atheism.”

So too will Tennes be required to prove he has a policy of denying wedding service to anyone outside his religious belief system (not just LGBTQ people) based on the argument originally published to his Facebook page that allowing LGBTQ couples to marry at his farm would violate his religious beliefs.

Tolerance

In his statements to press, Tennes said, “True tolerance is a two way street” adding “The government should not eradicate people of faith from the marketplace.”

This popular argument among religious conservatives seeks to frame the debate as one of discrimination against those holding religious beliefs rather than against those seeking equality in the public domain. Just as the argument didn’t hold legal water when Jim Crow business owners used it a generation ago, it doesn’t typically work now when combating laws meant to protect LGBTQ people in places of public accommodation.

Both then and now the fact remains: personal religious belief as protected by the First Amendment does not give a business owner the right to use that belief to disenfranchise protected classes in places of public accommodation. If laws exist protecting people from discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, religious belief cannot be used as a legal justification to circumvent the those laws.

Moreover, the ‘tolerance is a two-way street’ trope has become so cliché it shouldn’t merit a response. But here it is anyway.

Tolerance is not a two-way street. Because society tolerates one ideology, set of beliefs, or even class of people does not require it to tolerate another. Unlike argumentative debate, tolerance does not require a balance between two sides; rather, it is the ability to offer a fair and objective attitude toward opinions, beliefs, practices, races, nationalities, etc. The key component of tolerance, though, is that fair and objective attitude being divorced entirely from irrational prejudice and bigotry.

Because society “tolerates” LGBTQ people having the same basic rights as their heterosexual counterparts does not require any party to tolerate the homophobic rhetoric that initially led to that group’s original disenfranchisement.

In fact, behaviors with negative label attachments have those attachments for a good reason.

Racism isn’t an intolerant attack on a person’s skin color preference; it’s an accurate descriptor of prejudice. The same goes for other descriptive categories like sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia – they’re all inherently intolerant groups of behaviors. Arguing tolerance should be extended to those groups is irrational and disingenuous at best.

More succinctly stated, a person is not the victim of discrimination if the act committed against them is the prevention of their prejudice and intolerance against a person or group of people being carried out with the weight of the law.

Preventing a racist person from denying service to African-Americans even if that prejudice is based in religion (as is the case with organizations like the KKK) is not intolerance.

Preventing an Islamophobic person from harming a Muslim (such as the case in Portland this week) is not intolerance toward blind hatred masked as patriotism.

Preventing a homophobic business owner from doing business in East Lansing if he openly discriminates against LGBTQ people (despite laws prohibiting such conduct) is not intolerance toward his religious beliefs. Preventing him from discriminating against LGBTQ people is not discrimination or intolerance.

Given the involvement of ADF, expect this case to be long and drawn out over the next couple of years as they attempt to paint Tennes as the real victim for not being able to use his religious beliefs to harm others. You can read the full suit here.

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Tim Peacock is the Managing Editor and founder of Peacock Panache and has worked as a civil rights advocate for over twenty years. During that time he's worn several hats including leading on campus LGBT advocacy in the University of Missouri campus system, interning with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, and volunteering at advocacy organizations. You can learn more about him at his personal website.

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