An effort to ban a Catholic farmer from a farmers market because he would not host same-sex weddings on his property backfired big time for East Lansing, Michigan.
In a settlement released Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Mahoney ruled that Stephen Tennes, who owns Country Mill Farms in Charlotte, Michigan, just outside East Lansing, could collect $42,000 in damages and $783,800 in legal fees after winning his six-year court battle, according to a settlement.
The order also states that East Lansing, which singled Tennes out for enforcement through vendor guidelines that equated not hosting same-sex weddings with discrimination, must not apply those guidelines to him in the future.
Given city costs of more than $292,000 through October for its defense in the case, the full bill for East Lansing will top $1.1 million, according to the Lansing State Journal.
Tennes told Fox News in an August interview after the initial ruling in his favor that it had been “a tough decision we had to make” when the city banned him from its farmers market for following his faith “when we were faced with the choice of providing for our family like we always had, or walking away from our religious beliefs. And as parents and as veterans, that was a very tough decision to make.”
“But we’re glad that we were able to go forward with this and the court has come out with a strong ruling that helps not just our family, but really people of all backgrounds and beliefs to realize that the government can’t choose to punish some people just because they don’t like their beliefs,” he said.
Maloney had ruled in August that the city was wrong to punish Tennes, but did not issue an order on damages until Friday.
“Steve and his family-run farm happily serve all customers as a valued vendor at East Lansing’s farmer’s market. 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,” Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel Kate Anderson said in a news release posted to the ADF’s website.
“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,’” she said.
Free speech and religious freedom should be celebrated publicly, not silenced.
We’re thrilled to see that Steve Tennes, owner of Country Mill Farms, can now speak and live freely according to his beliefs. pic.twitter.com/JTGdVYffHc
— Alliance Defending Freedom (@ADFLegal) September 4, 2023
The ruling noted that East Lansing went after Tennes due to a social media post in which Tennes said the farm, which hosts weddings routinely, would not host a same-sex wedding.
He wrote then that “we do not participate in the celebration of a same sex union. We have and will continue to respectfully direct wedding inquiries to another mid-Michigan orchard that has more experience hosting same sex weddings,’” according to the ruling.
After East Lansing said he was then barred from the farmers market, the farm announced it would host no more weddings for the 2016 season.
In December 2016, the farm announced it would host weddings again, but none that required Tennes to violate his principles, the ruling said.
After Tennes made his stand, East Lansing went forward with an overhaul to its vendor guidelines to include its non-discrimination ordinance and said the farm was in violation.
Tennes won a jury trial in the case in 2021, according to The Detroit News.
The ruling released Friday said the city did not uniformly apply the law, and concluded, “The City’s decision to exclude Country Mill Farms from the 2017 East Lansing Farmer’s Market constituted a burden on Plaintiffs’ religious beliefs. Plaintiffs were forced to choose between following their religious beliefs and a government benefit for which they were otherwise qualified.”