Christian farmers banned from city market over marriage views
Officials in East Lansing, Mich., crafted a new ordinance to keep the Tennes family from selling their local produce
Like many business people today, Steve and Bridget Tennes rely on multiple streams of income to pay the bills. They run an orchard called Country Mill Farms in Charlotte, Mich., that doubles as a wedding venue. When the city of East Lansing learned the Tenneses only host heterosexual weddings, it banned them from the town’s farmers market.
Last Wednesday, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed suit on behalf of the Tennes family. ADF senior counsel Jeremy Tedesco said the city found out about the family’s religious beliefs in August.
Steve Tennes was selling organic corn, apples, blueberries, and pumpkins at the farmers market, as he had for seven years. Tennes, a devout Catholic, believes in the Biblical view of marriage—one man, one woman. That belief prompted him to decline celebrating same sex weddings on his property.
The city pressured Tennes not to come back to the market, citing concerns over protests and disruptions. He kept going, and no disruptions or protests disturbed the market’s peace.
When pressuring Tennes didn’t work, the city adopted a new policy and began enforcing it this year. The policy requires farmers market vendors to comply with the city’s “Human Relations Ordinance and its public policy against discrimination … while at the market and as a general business practice.”
It also makes it illegal for vendors to make statements about who they will or won’t serve because of their “sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression.”
“They’re reaching outside of their own jurisdictional limits to enforce their policy against people who are doing completely legal activities on their own property,” Tedesco said. “When somebody is targeting you so clearly to exclude you from this kind of a market, this kind of a forum, there’s really no way to resolve it short of litigation.”
The Tenneses live 22 miles outside East Lansing. In a written response to questions from WORLD, East Lansing officials pointed to advertisements of the family’s business that explicitly limit weddings on their property to heterosexual unions. Their property isn’t in East Lansing, but city officials said their business practice extends beyond their borders.
“The Tenneses’ have every legal right to operate their farm according to their religious beliefs,” Tedesco said. “They’re not violating any single law that applies to their farm.”
Listen to “Legal Docket” on the June 5, 2017, edition of The World and Everything in It.
Putting stock in faith-based pensions
In a unanimous decision issued Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court said hospitals and para-church organizations can participate in church pension funds regardless of what entity established or operates the fund. Their ruling in Advocate Healthcare Network v. Stapleton overturned an appellate court decision forcing Christian hospitals to participate in government-regulated, for-profit pension plans. The lower courts ruled the government should determine whether a faith-based entity is aligned closely enough with a church to receive tax-exempt status and operate its pension fund according to church standards.
“It is simple common sense that nuns, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, seminaries, nursing homes, and orphanages are a core part of the church and not an afterthought,” Eric Rassbach, an attorney with the Becket Fund, said following Monday’s decision.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Sonya Sotomayor agreed the decision “correctly interprets relevant statutory” law but declared herself “troubled by the outcome of these cases.” At issue are the pension programs of organizations like Little Sisters of the Poor. Today’s plans look nothing like the more closely church-aligned programs of almost 40 years ago, Sotomayor argued.
“These organizations thus bear little resemblance to those Congress considered when enacting the 1980 amendment to the church plan definition,” she wrote. “This current reality might prompt Congress to take a different path.” —Bonnie Pritchett
Insubordination or religious liberty?
In a less encouraging decision for religious liberty, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case of Lance Cpl. Monifa Sterling, who was court-martialed for refusing to remove from her desk a paraphrased version of Isaiah 54:17: “No weapon formed against me shall prosper.”
Other Marines had personal displays at their desks but received no reprimand, according to Sterling’s attorneys at First Liberty. Sterling’s supervisor took down the post and threw it in the trash. She reposted the message, prompting charges of disobeying a direct order, according to her attorneys at First Liberty.
“The military court’s outrageous decision means federal judges and military officials can strip our service members of their constitutional rights just because they don’t think someone’s religious beliefs are important enough to be protected,” First Liberty’s Kelly Shakelford said after the court’s denial. —B.P.
Chicago police get free speech education
Officers in the Chicago police force will undergo training on First Amendment rights after pro-life advocates and sidewalk counselors filed suit.
Attorneys with the Thomas More Society filed the lawsuit on behalf of two pro-life groups and several individuals who claimed police incorrectly enforced a “bubble zone” ordinance used in front of abortion centers to push back protesters.
A district judge ruled in January that while the ordinance isn’t unconstitutional, police had misapplied it. The city agreed to pay the group’s attorney fees and train officers in the actual ordinance details and in constitutionally protected free speech rights.
According to the ordinance, anyone less than 50 feet from a building entrance who wants to approach someone to talk, hand out a pamphlet, or hold a sign, must get their permission before coming closer than eight feet.
Instead, Chicago officers kept sidewalk counselors 50 feet away from abortion centers and let abortion center escorts approach people without their permission, according to Thomas More attorneys.
“Pro-abortion propaganda claims that pro-life counselors intimidate women approaching abortion clinics,” lawyer Thomas Olp said. “That is not true. That type of engagement would be ineffective. Pro-life sidewalk counselors compassionately and calmly approach women, one-on-one, to offer them information about abortion alternatives.”
The Thomas More Society still hopes to prove the ordinance unconstitutional with an appeal of the original ruling. —Samantha Gobba
No cake for you
For about a dozen Mondays—but who’s counting?—Jack Phillips has looked for a response to his plea for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his case. Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Denver, faces fines for violating Colorado’s gay-affirming nondiscrimination law. He seeks a religious exemption from the law, which puts him at odds with his Biblical convictions about marriage. —B.P.
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