Court rules Michigan farmer can post about refusing same-sex weddings

KALAMAZOO — A federal court in Michigan has ruled for a farmer who said he asserted his free speech rights in a post about refusing same-sex wedding ceremonies at his farm.

From the Washington Blade:

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.”

East Lansing had barred Tennes from participating in the city’s farmers market after the post. They said that the post violated the city’s non-discrimination ordinance.

The judge also ruled that the city had violated Tennes’ religious freedom. Under the preliminary injunction, the must allow him to sell his produce in the farmers market.

East Lansing is looking at ways to move forward with the lawsuit.