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Editor's Note: This story has been edited to correctly identify Alliance Defending Freedom attorney John Bursch and omits prior details about an unreturned call.
As a federal discrimination lawsuit goes on against the city of East Lansing, its elected officials aren’t backing down from what they see as a national fight in defense of basic civil liberties and equal protections for LGBTQ citizens.
“This is one of those cases that extends far beyond East Lansing,” said Mayor Mark Meadows, also an attorney. “The issue at stake is about a core principle for the city of East Lansing. We were among the first in the nation to extend these protections based on sexual orientation. It’s a basis for how we identify ourselves.”
In 2016, city officials denied Country Mill Orchard and Cider Mill a return to its usual booth at the city farmers market because its owner, Stephen Tennes, had refused to host same-sex marriages at his business in Charlotte. A city ordinance, officials argued, prohibited vendors who engage in discriminatory “general business practices.”
Tennes sued. A court order allowed his return. The case remains ongoing in front of U.S. District Judge Paul Mahoney in Grand Rapids. And Tennes is still selling apples.
The lawsuit — costing the city of East Lansing about $182,000 to date — touches on a hotbed of societal issues that many expect will eventually bring the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court. And city officials think the legal costs are worth the preservation of LGBTQ rights amid a nationwide effort to curb discriminatory business practices.
“This case is about keeping our city protected,” said Councilman Aaron Stephens. “This is about the farmer’s market, but it’s also much bigger than that. They want the ability to discriminate and that’s just not something we allow in East Lansing. This isn’t about the farmer’s market anymore. This is about full-blown civil rights.”
Tennes argued that the denial of his license — because of its direct connection to his unwillingness to host same-sex marriages at his business — was a violation of his constitutional right of free speech and discriminates against his religious beliefs. The lawsuit maintains the regulations are “hostile” to traditional, Catholic ideals.
Messages left for Tennes were not returned.
Attorney John Bursch, one of many lawyers with Alliance Defending Freedom that represent Country Mill, said recent case law lends credence to his arguments that East Lansing has demonstrated “religious animus” in evicting Country Mill.
“The evidence here will conclude that Country Mill was targeted because of their faith,” Bursch said.
Bursch pointed to similarities in last year’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of Masterpiece Cakeshop against the Colorado Civil Rights Commission in support of Country Mills’ lawsuit. In that case, a bakery was found to be within its legal rights to refuse to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple based on the owner’s religious beliefs.
While the court didn’t rule on the broader intersection of anti-discrimination laws, free exercise of religion and freedom of speech, it did decide the commission had overstepped its bounds by imposing unconstitutional restrictions. Bursch said he’s willing to take Country Mills’ case to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.
“I’ve argued 11 cases in the U.S. Supreme Court and I’m well prepared to do it again,” Bursch added.
John Corvino, a philosophy professor at Wayne State University, said the case is “complex and peculiar” because Tennes was booted based largely on discriminatory practices occurring well outside the city of East Lansing. The ban on gay weddings at Tennes’ Charlotte orchard, however, is “perfectly legal in Michigan,” Corvino explained.
“On the other hand, there’s a real irony in the owners’ complaining about being excluded from the market in the same breath in which they insist on their own rights to exclude same-sex couple from their orchard,” Corvino added. “Freedom of association cuts both ways.”
Both sides have since filed a motion for summary judgment with hopes of resolving the issue without a trial. But officials aren’t afraid to keep up the fight either.
“We think we have a strong case and we’re going to do our best to make some good law,” said Mayor Pro-Tem Erik Altmann. “We get sued all the time and it costs us a lot of money. Most of time there’s no good reason or upside. Here, we have a chance to do some good for our community and for people around the country.”
Added Councilwoman Ruth Beier: “It’s not like we have a lot of choices at this point. We told them they were violating our law. They challenged our law. We either say we don’t have to protect human rights and toss out the ordinance or we keep the case moving. That’s not really an option. We can’t allow discrimination in our city.”