September 18, 2017 at 2:08 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Court: Facebook posts allow Mich. farmer to refuse service to gays

A federal court has ruled Facebook posts allow a Michigan farmer to refuse to host same-sex weddings. (Photo courtesy Facebook)

A federal court has ruled in favor of a Michigan farmer asserting a First Amendment right to refuse to host same-sex couples at his wedding venue, concluding his Facebook posts announcing the policy are protected under the U.S. Constitution.

In a 16-page decision, U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney, an appointee of George W. Bush, granted Stephen Tennes of Country Mill Farms a preliminary injunction on Friday against the City of East Lansing on the basis that his social media posts “constitute protected activity” under the First Amendment.

“The City focuses on the act of excluding same-sex wedding ceremonies from Country Mill,” Maloney writes. “But, even if that conduct is not protected, Plaintiffs still engaged in protected activity when Tennes communicated his religious beliefs on Facebook in August and December. Even if the City is correct that talking about discrimination is not protected, Plaintiffs also talked about their religious beliefs, which is a protected activity. For the first element in the retaliation claim the City cannot ignore the portions of the Facebook posts that would be protected speech.”

The Charlotte, Mich.-based farmer sued the City of East Lansing after it informed him he could no longer participate in a farmer’s market to sell produce when he declared on Facebook he wouldn’t allow same-sex marriages on his property, which he rents for wedding services.

Tennes wrote a Facebook post saying he believes “marriage is a sacramental union between one man and one woman” based on his Catholic faith in August 2016 after he denied wedding services to two women in 2014 and they encouraged others not to patronize his business.

Although Tennes temporarily suspended all weddings on his property, he later resumed them, but only for different-sex ceremonies. Tennes wrote in a subsequent Facebook post that he reserves a 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.”

The City of East Lansing initially allowed Tennes to continue selling produce at its farmer’s market, but asked him no longer to participate as long as that was his policy.

Subsequently, the city denied his application for the 2017 season after it amended its policy to mandate vendors adhere to the city’s human rights ordinance, which bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. That denial prompted Tennes to sue in federal court on the basis the city violated his freedom of speech and religion under the First Amendment.

Maloney concludes the City of East Lansing singled out Tennes for punishment because it amended its human rights ordinance after he declared on Facebook he wouldn’t serve same-sex couples.

“Within months, the City amended its Vendor Guidelines to incorporate the City’s non discrimination ordinance,” Maloney writes. “The City also singled Country Mill out for special treatment by ordering the Farmer’s Market Planning Commission not to invite Country Mill to the 2017 market and by requiring Country Mill’s vendor application to be forwarded to the City for consideration.”

In addition to finding the City of East Lansing violated Tennes’ right to free speech, Maloney determined the municipality violated his freedom of religion.

“A factfinder could infer that the change in the Vendor Guidelines was motivated by Plaintiffs’ religious beliefs or their religiously-motivated conduct,” Tennes writes. “And, the City’s hostility to Plaintiffs’ religion or religious conduct was then manifested when the City used its facially neutral and generally applicable ordinance to deny Plaintiffs’ Vendor Application.”

As a result of the preliminary injunction, the City of East Lansing must allow Tennes to sell produce at its farmer’s market for the remainder of the 2017 season.

In a subsequent Facebook post, Country Mill Farms celebrated the decision and urged supporters to visit its booth at the farmer’s market.

“We are thrilled to be back at the East Lansing Farmer’s Market this Sunday due to the court ruling,” the post says. “For the past 46 years, our family has faithfully served everyone in our community from all different backgrounds and beliefs. We strive to treat everyone with dignity and respect. We will continue to do so as we sell our organic apples, cider, donuts and apple cider slushies at the East Lansing’s farmer’s market, starting again this weekend.”

The City of East Lansing issued a statement expressing disappointment with the ruling and pledging to consider ways to move forward with the lawsuit.

“The City is disappointed in the Court’s ruling,” the statement says. “The City believes that the Court relied on the Plaintiff’s complaint and disregarded the contrary facts that were set forth in the Defendant’s answer and reply to the Plaintiff’s motion. At the time of the Court’s ruling, the Court also had the benefit of the facts established by the City’s Motion to Dismiss. The City will be considering the seeking of a stay and an appeal of the ruling.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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