Personal and local interest post - the Country Mill case finally goes to trial on Tuesday

The July newsletter from Alliance Defending Freedom (below) had an update on the Tennes family / Country Mill v. City of East Lansing case. We have many personal connections to this story. We live within the city of East Lansing and about 1/2 mile from where the East Lansing Farmers’ Market meets. People who attend our church know the family. Rebecca literally bought an apple cider slushy from them at the market yesterday. And, though it has been a while since I read them all, I believe emails I exchanged with city council members are referenced in the official legal documents pertaining to the case (see second-to-last paragraph here for an interesting story about that). Few other people will even mention this so I thought I had a bit of a duty to say something.

The (somewhat hard to read, sorry) summary above is correct. The Country Mill has been a vendor at the East Lansing market since 2010, selling apples, applesauce, apple slushies, apple cider, apple donuts… you get the idea. And, of course, they sell all these products to anyone who wants to buy them. In 2016, which now feels like another planet so rapidly has the US changed, Stephen Tennes (who is Roman Catholic) wrote a Facebook post affirming his belief that true marriage can only exist between a man and a woman. The Country Mill had also denied same sex couples permission to host a wedding on their property, which is far outside the city limits of East Lansing. The city learned about the Facebook post and crafted a new vendor policy specifically to exclude The Country Mill, forbidding any vendors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation not only in their market activities, but anywhere in their business practice. (The preliminary injunction is a relatively short read if you’re interested.)

And that’s the story. Our tolerant, diversity-loving city looked at a popular market vendor that looked exactly like every other vendor at the market to any customer and served everyone without distinction and said “your kind aren’t welcome here”. There are many legal questions in this case. Jurisdictional issues are one - if a complaint was made to the city about discrimination by a vendor at their property 30 miles outside of the city, is the city really going to send city officers 30 miles outside the city to investigate the complaint? But the big issue is the claimed violation of the First Amendment. It is quite clear the order of events was “we saw what you said, we didn’t like it, so we crafted a policy to expel you”. The city has since been adamant that “we don’t care what you believe, we only care how you behave”, as if those are separable concerns.

A likelihood to succeed on their First Amendment claims is why a judge, in 2017, ordered the city to let The Country Mill return to the market, and they’ve been there ever since. And it has been just fine. I doubt 95+% of market customers today have any idea, as they walk around, that the city is still engaged in legal action in an attempt to expel The Country Mill, which certainly makes you wonder why it’s such a necessary thing to do. Who are the intolerant ones, again?

I don’t think I’m spilling any secrets to tell you one more personal connection I have to this story. As I said, I exchanged several emails with city council members arguing against their new vendor policy. I wrote one or two articles about those email exchanges at Medium.com (that was a thing we had before Substack, you know). At some point, Alliance Defending Freedom asked the city to provide all communications related to the case. And then some time after this, out of the blue I got a call from an ADF attorney at my office at Lansing Community College, who had looked me up. He had come across my Medium articles and realized they referenced emails with city council members that he had never seen (so the city had apparently not provided them). He asked me to forward everything I had his way, which of course I did. But that was quite a remarkable phone call to receive out of the blue like that.

So that’s all I have to say. Looks like their case goes to normal trial finally on Tuesday. Pray for a good outcome. If you win the lottery, throw some money at Alliance Defending Freedom, they do good work.